Archive for March 8th, 2009

Like most enthusiasts of Northwest Coast art, I am familiar with Haisla artist Lyle Wilson mainly because of his gold and silver jewelry. I was vaguely aware that he was also a carver, but for every pole I’ve seen by him, I must have seen a dozen of his gold or silver bracelets or pendants. That is what makes the West Vancouver Museum’s show “North Star: The Art of Lyle Wilson” so interesting: by focusing on his painting and carving, it shows a side of Wilson that most people only occasionally see.

The show consists of about fifty pieces chosen by Wilson. Ranging from the most traditional of designs painted on cedar to stylized aluminum and a painted acoustic guitar, and from a map of British Columbia’s first nations displayed on the PNE to pieces from his own collection of his works, the selections in the show show Wilson not just as a master artist (I already knew he was that), but also as far more versatile than I realized. The exhibit does include several pieces of Wilson’s jewelry, including one piece that was designed specially for the show, and is being raffled off . However, in size as well as number, it is the paintings on cedar and other sculptures that dominate the two rooms of the museum’s gallery.

At least half a dozen pieces in the show were paintings on cedar. The local first nations, of course, have been painting designs on cedars for centuries, but most Northwest Coast artists today prefer paper to cedar, and prints to painting. By contrast, Wilson’s apparent liking for cedar is not only traditional, but gives his paintings a three-dimensionality that even canvas cannot match, bringing them closer to masks and other carved objects. The grain also gives his painting an additional aspect to catch the eye. On one small painting of a heron, Wilson even combines a background of red cedar with a yellow cedar frame, the contrast adding another source of visual appeal.

Although the show does include several paintings on paper, and one sketch of a miniature pole that is also in the show, they are easy to overlook compared to the works on cedar. One especially interesting piece, which several visitors have declared the best in the show, is a marine scene called “Raven and the Fisherman,” with a blue line separating the canoe, raven and sun above the water from the teeming undersea world of orcas, seals, salmons, sharks, octopuses, eels, and crabs that take up three-quarters of the the painting and bisected by a red fishing line. While individual figures conform to the northern formline tradition, apart from their heavy use of red, the overall composition is asymmetrical and chaotic. Yet, far from appearing naive, the crowded painting against the wooden medium is more suggestive of a classical Chinese screen than anything else.
Another masterful work is of a dogfish, and seems to represent the moment when Dogfish Woman transformed for life in the sea. With its sheer size and the two red eyes with cross-hatched irises and pupils with designs in them, it easily dominated its space, and the gallery wisely placed it as far as possible from other works. Even by the door, across two rooms, it caught and held the eye.

Other examples of Wilson’s woodwork in the show ranged from two intricately carved wooden plates – one designed around salmon, and another, a freestanding sculpture, a yew pendant, and a model spirit canoe.

However, what vied most with the paintings on cedar for my attention were Wilson’s recent works in aluminum. New media are more the rule than the exception in Northwest coast art (consider the rise of silver, gold and argillite in the 19th century, or the recent popularity of glass), but the metal sculptures I have seen by other artists have largely seemed to me simplistic and too post-modern to be wholly successful.

By contrast, Wilson’s four aluminum works in the show manage to be both modern and traditional at the same time. They include a sculpture done for the show, a small version of the “Orca Chief” that is in the international departures lounge of the Vancouver airport, and one in which the medal is painted red. Set parallel to the wall by posts, they pose new design questions to the traditional forms – for instance, how do you minimize the thickness of the juncture of formlines when the freestanding parts have to be supported by one another? Wilson’s answer is a mixture of layers, a cutting away of corners and other techniques. At the same time, the sculptures are so detailed and finely cut that they are easily a match for traditional media in visual interest.

Another interesting aspect of the aluminum sculptures is that, because they stand away from the wall, they create interesting labyrinths of shadows on the walls behind them. In effect, the shadows become part of the sculpture – and, when you consider that, for centuries, many pieces of Northwest Coast art were seen largely by firelight, a completely appropriate part.

The museum staff member on duty obligingly let me take pictures so long as they were only done with a digital camera. However, she asked that I not use them professionally. I take that to mean that they should not be published in any way, which means that, unfortunately, I cannot add the pictures I took to this blog entry. Instead, all I can do is to recommend the Lyle Wilson show in the highest possible terms. If you’re like me, you’ll come away with a whole new perspective on Wilson, and even greater respect (if that were possible) for his skill and versatility as an artist.

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