Someday, I am going to jot down the stories of my art acquisitions. There’s the story of how I had to trek to the South Terminal of the Vancouver Airport not knowing the distance, and the story of how a simple bank transfer assumed nightmare proportions as I returned again and again to the bank. And now, after yesterday, I have the story of stopping by the Chateau Granville to pick up Shawn Aster’s “Raven Heart” to the befuddlement and bemusement of the desk clerk and manager, who had obviously never heard of such a thing.
The situation was no one’s fault – just one of those times when the perversity of the universe seems set to stun. I had reserved the painting when I was in Terrace five weeks ago, but I didn’t have the time to get to a bank machine and return before the show closed for the day. As a result, I didn’t pay until after I returned home. We had floated various schemes for delivery, ranging from leaving the piece at the Grayhound station to picking it up at the Spirit Gallery reception yesterday. But an emergency had forced Aster to return home early, and the hotel desk was his improvised way of getting the piece to me.
Now that Aster has won a couple of scholarships at the Freda Diesing School, his work is starting to sell, and people are expecting a successful career ahead of him. As he takes his first steps, I can’t resist a bit of self-congratulation for having discovered the young Tsimshian artist’s work several months ago at the school’s mid-term show (and some mild complementary scorn for those who needed the scholarships to realize the quality of his work).
Many young artists seem to enjoy designs in which Northwest Coast designs are incorporated into the shapes of modern culture. For instance, Latham Mack, another scholarship winner at the Freda Diesing, did a group figure of traditional designs that formed the outline of a Playboy bunny on a T-shirt. In the same way, “Raven Heart” takes two traditional ravens and constrains them in a heart design.
This practice, I suppose, is the extension of the tradition of adjusting a design to fit the contours of the shape it is on – a pole, or a bowl, spoon, hat, or box. The main difference, of course, is that the possibilities for innovation and commentary open up when a modern shape informs the design. In the case of “Raven Heart,” the two ravens resemble a traditional split design, but, when put into a heart, suggest a rather unhappy relationship, the raven of mythology being associated more with promiscuity than faithfulness, and more with clever and expedient lies than the truthfulness that is generally thought to be a necessity for a successful relationship. A confirmation that the relationship is less than smooth is the constrained feathers on the wings that seem almost like bars confining the trapped figure inside the heart — which has a decidedly unhappy look on its face.
It is probably no accident, either, that the piece was first exhibited at a show shortly before Valentine’s Day this year. The piece seems to play one culture against the other, using each to comment sarcastically upon the other.
But what interests me most about “Raven Heart,” like all of Aster’s work that I have seen, is its technical skill. Its form lines do not have the most graceful curves that I have seen, but for the most part they are suitably varied in thickness, and the use of interior U-shapes to minimize the thickness of the intersections is well done. In addition, of course, the use of red as the primary color – a relatively rare practice, traditionally-speaking – is suited to the heart shape.
The design itself is made up of only a few shapes – notably the U-shapes and T-shapes – which vary in length and whose colors are sometimes inverted. The composition has an obvious horizontal symmetry, but it also includes a less noticeable vertical symmetry, made up of groups of threes and fours: three feathers on the stylized wings, three fingers on the trapped figure’s hands (or are they the claws of the ravens?), four interior shapes on the outer wings, and four tail feathers on the bottom. Each side, too, has three large ovoids filled with black. Similarly, the circles at the joints of the wings are balanced by one that might be the tail-bone, while three circles, irregularly shaped, are also at the center of the trapped figure’s design. There is an economy in the relatively few shapes used in the design, and an almost mathematical precision in the vertical symmetry that is rare in any Northwest Coast art, but especially rare in an artist over thirty.
I have talked off and on with Aster about a commission, and I still hope to see it one day. Meanwhile, “Raven Heart” is a masterful small performance that makes me believe that Aster has a future every bit as promising as everyone is saying.