Archive for September, 2010

Ron Telek is primarily a carver and a sculptor. He has worked in everything from wood and stone to cloth and bone, but most of his work is three-dimensional. Consequently, I was curious to see what his first print would look like. I expected a sort of two-dimensional equivalent of film noir, full of shadows and vaguely glimpsed forms, but instead the print was “The Siren: The Keeper of Drowned Men’s Souls,” an intricate piece that more than one viewer has compared to a tattoo design (I envision it stretching across someone’s back).

Besides the medium, another unusual aspect of the print is that its subject and execution includes only one hint of Telek’s Nisga’a background: the design on the back fin of the smaller siren.

Instead, the piece draws on Classical Greek and Roman mythology. At first, the subject is surprising, but, on second thought, why not? Although Telek has a First Nations background, he has mentioned several times the influence of Japanese,African, and South American art on his work and such influences can sometimes be seen in his work. Nor is this the first time he has done a non-aboriginal piece. All things considered, it is not surprising that other cultures should be visible in his work, especially since the siren is not that far removed from several figures in local First Nations mythology, such as the Otter Woman.

At any rate, despite its unusual aspects, many of Telek’s characteristic elements are in “The Siren,” such as the figure in the mouth and spirits in the form of faces erupting all over the body. What is unusual, though, are the suggests of sexual aggression or predation in the breasts, each of which is made of a single spirit with teeth where the nipples should be, or the open mouth with teeth where the vagina should be. This sense is reinforced by the waves of hair, which instead of being seductive become a Medusa-like mass of writhing spirits.

Aggression is also suggested in the heavy shoulders and the reaching left hand, whose size suggests that it is reaching out to the viewer.Telek’s siren does not merely lure men to their doom, but actively preys upon them.

Then, too, the relation between the siren and men she captures is ambiguous – but menacing no matter how you interpret it. Some of the spirits seem resigned, but far more of them appear to be angry or in pain, leaving you to wonder how, exactly, the siren is keeping them. Does she only gain substance and the power to act through the drowned souls? Is the fact that she seems composed of lost souls an indication that she only exists in people’s minds? However you interpret the piece, the siren is not the supernatural beauty that you sometimes encounter in Classical mythology. Instead, she seems a supernatural dominatrix, overwhelming and perhaps luring the drowned men through sheer force of presence.

This is a remarque of the limited edition print – that is, a copy with an additional element not found in the original. Usually, a remarque consists of a quick doodle, but, Telek has added the second siren, adding almost as much detail as in the original image, and increasing the size of the print by nearly half.

The second siren reinforces the impressions hinted at by the first. Its face is more shark-like than that of the original image, evoking the figure of other powerful female figures in various First Nation mythologies, such as the Haida Shark Woman and Dogfish Woman.

In addition, the second figure gives a perspective through the drowned man still wriggling in its hand. The sirens, clearly, are huge.

The idea that the sirens gain substance from the capture of drowned men is further reinforced by the facts that the second figure’s body includes fewer spirits, and that it is somewhat smaller – perhaps a juvenile or teenage siren. Perhaps it is not even sexually mature, since it is much more slender and lacks the mass of flowing hair of the main figure.

Psychologists could go wild on the implications of these images (I know at least one who is sure that Telek was abused as a child on the evidence of his carvings). Personally, though, I prefer to simply enjoy the imaginative possibilities – and to thank Telek for this present, and for adding the remarque before giving it to me.

Thanks, Ron!

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As I write, a local newspaper is gearing up for its annual literacy promotion. The cause is hard to fault, especially if you’re a hyper-literate like me. I can’t help wondering, though, exactly what the organizers mean by “literacy,” except a vague, feel-good cause that everybody supports.

After all, there is something self-serving a newspaper promoting literacy. Is the newspaper really interested in the common good, or simply in ensuring a new generation of readers? In these days when obituaries are being written for beloved old newspapers in particular and the medium in general, I have to wonder.

The trouble is, no one ever seems to identify exactly what they mean by literacy. Even at a minimal level of being able to read street signs, ballots, and government documents, a definition of literacy runs into trouble. After all, exactly what abilities does minimal literacy include? The ability to use a colon or semi-colon properly? An ampersand? A hyphen or forward slash? The knowledge of when to use a list, and what a numbered list signals as opposed to a bullet list? When to use and how to pronounce the accents in words borrowed from other languages? By these standards, very few people would ever be counted as literate, even though all of these questions are relatively elementary.

Similarly, what level of comprehension is implied by the term? Does a person, for instance, need to be able to identify a literary effect? To be able to consciously use those effects themselves?

For that matter, is an awareness of language and how it develops required before someone is literate? If so, then thousands of grammar Nazis who condemn any departure from an artificial standard English would be horrified to learn that they were not literate themselves.

Also, sooner or later, a definition of literacy involves a familiarity with the cultural influences that shape a language. True literacy in English, for example, requires a knowledge of Shakespeare and Christianity (or at least the King James Bible), as well as several dozen other authors and cultural influences.

And what about idioms? Should a person who can write and read a language but not understand an idiom or a pun be considered literate?

Discarding any of these requirements is difficult, but that is only half the problem. The other half is what degree of knowledge or skill a literate person is supposed to have in each of these requirements. How can you measure a concept that, the more you consider it, the more complex it becomes?

No wonder that many educators stick to simpler goals, like standardized spelling. At least with spelling, there is usually a definite right or wrong answer, so long as you stick with official English. But including anything that makes reading or writing seem worth developing means entering a more complex world where right and wrong is qualified and weighted, where – horror of horrors – a student might even be able to question a teacher, provided they know how to construct an argument.

In the end, the concept of literacy seems to come down to what you are pointing to when you use the term. But I would be a lot more comfortable if the promoters of literacy did point to anything. For all I know, their concept of literacy – or, at least, what they are willing to settle for – is far different from my definitions.

I can’t help suspecting that authority figures are automatically hypocritical whenever they talk about literacy. Obviously, a technological society needs higher general standards of literacy than other cultures in order to function, but I always have the nagging suspicion that, when promoting literacy, the Powers That Be would vastly prefer that it not be promoted too far – certainly not to the extent that the average person can deconstruct official pronouncements and maybe question them. In the end, I suspect that the level of literacy they are prepared to settle for is far less than the level I would prefer, and that literacy can be a far more radical concept that everyone assumes.

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Ian Reid (Nusi) is a Heiltsuk artist whose work I have been watching for a while. For a long time, I was determined that the first Reid piece that I would buy would be one of his Chilkat ravens, like the one that was in the Continuum show at the Bill Reid Gallery. However, when “Working Shaman” came into the Inuit Gallery last month, I leaped at the chance to buy it. The mask is a simple one in some aspects, but all the more appealing for that reason.

If you have read anything about shamanism on the Northwest Coast, you may remember that shamans typically did not wash or cut their hair. This is the main element in Reid’s mask, with its unkempt hair and mustache, its carelessly-tied topknot, and the white feathers. The blending of the red paint into the color of the unpainted wood also suggests a lack of cleanliness, or at least the chapped complexion of someone who spends most of his time outdoors.

Many shamans had a fearsome reputation (certainly, their graves were isolated, and not places where people lingered). This reputation is played upon in many modern renderings of shamans, but Reid has taken a different approach. His shaman is not so much a figure of fear as an eccentric. The unfocused eyes and slightly parted lips suggest the trance state of someone imperfectly grounded in the everyday world.

This is the first Heiltsuk piece I have bought, and I admit to knowing almost nothing of the Heiltsuk artistic traditions, mainly because they do not seem to have been studied in their own right. However, the carving and the painting suggest a tradition that I would expect from the Heiltsuk’s physical location: It mostly resembles the Kwakwaka’wakw, but also has a touch of northern formline as well.

Saying more is complicated by the fact that Reid seems to be drawing on 19th century sensibilities, rather than working as a modern artist familiar with the formal rules of formline. The formline on the mask is looser than modern artists usually draw today, and the U-shapes are independent decorations, not elements contained by the formline. In fact, such formline as appears is thin and almost overwhelmed by the red of the eye sockets and nose, and around the mouth.

Where you can see the plain wood, it looks old rather than recently carved. Add the smearing of the red, and the general impression is of an old mask – dug up, perhaps, from a shaman’s grave to put on display in a museum.

Given that much of Reid’s work is ceremonial and communal, this impression is probably deliberate. Artists who work both commercially and cultural generally make a distinction between the two types of work and, looking for a tradition for non-cultural work, what better place to find it than in a museum? That this is a mask to look at, not to be danced, is emphasized by the fact that not only are there no eye holes, but neither are there are any holes for the nostrils — not even an indication of where they would be.

Portrait masks can be hard to do well. Many carvers – and buyers – prefer bird or animal masks, that seem more imaginative. But in depicting a shaman and giving the mask a patina of historicity, in “Working Shaman,” Reid shows that a portrait mask can be as imaginative as any.

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Limited edition prints are a standard medium for art, but no school of art has made them its own as much as Northwest Coast art. One reason, I think, is that they were popularized in the 1960s by such leading artists as Robert Davidson. Another reason is that limited prints bridge the gap in price between fine art and tourist curios, with the majority selling for under $400 and many for under $200, and therefore can provide a steady income to printmakers. For buyers, they are a step up from buying a reproduction – although you need to know a bit about prints if you are going to buy sensibly.

The first thing you should know before buying a print is how it was made. The highest quality prints are lithographs or serigraphs (silk screens), but increasingly you find giclee prints, or prints run off a computer via a high-end ink jet printer. Some artists and galleries refuse to handle giclee prints, citing poor quality examples, but their cheapness and the fact that artists can print them on demand mean that giclee prints are increasingly popular. Still, if you do buy one, look closely at how the ink sticks to the paper. If the ink seems loose, or riding above the paper, then your giclee print may have a very short lifespan compared to one made by other methods.

Many people buy a print for the art. However, if you think that you might sell the print someday, notice the print run, which is usually penciled in beside the artist’s name and the title of the print. Forty years ago, print runs of 500 or even 600 were common in Northwest Coast art, but now, a counterfeiting scandal or two later, the norm is now under 200. Private editions, such as those released for an artist’s wedding, may number 25 or less. As a general rule, the lower the number of prints in the edition, the more valuable each print will be in theory.

In practice, however, the number of prints in the run is not always a reliable guide to value. Especially with giclee prints, an artist may not produce the full number of prints in the edition if they are not selling. And, even with traditional prints, some may be spoiled or destroyed, especially as the years go by. Conversely, an artist may deliberately withhold prints from the market in hopes of artificially creating a demand. Unless you know something about a limited edition, it is almost impossible to know how many are actually in circulation. Understandably, artists and galleries are sometimes reluctant to talk about such matters.

For the same reason, buying a print with a low number, such as 1/200 does not always result in a more valuable print. If you later resell a lower numbered print – or a collection of prints with the same number on each print – you may actually get a price that is higher than usual, but the increased value is entirely in the eyes of the buyer.

Similarly, Artist Proofs (AP)are often sold for more than a standard print – often for up to twice the price of an ordinary print. Artist Proofs are supposed to be copies run during printing to check the quality of reproduction. However, today, Artist Proofs are just as likely to be five prints – possibly the first five – run off and labeled as Artist Proofs. Except for their designation, Artist Proofs are unlikely to differ in any way from other prints in the run.

Another way that a print can increase in value is if it is a Remarque (RM). A Remarque is an addition to the print, often hand-drawn, by the artist themselves. A Remarque is usually a small doodle, but it can almost be a substantial edition to the print. Either way, a remarque print often goes for twice the price of other prints.

Still another way to give a print added value is a personal message from the artist. However, such prints rarely come on the market.

However, unless you are a serious collector, worrying about Artist Proofs, Remarques, or personal messages is rarely worth your while unless the artist is well-known, and the print is already about $400. Most prints will only rise slightly in value in two or three decades, regardless of their embellishments.Only a few artists, such as Susan Point or Robert Davidson, release prints that quickly rise in value, and the value of their works rests mostly on the consensus that their work is collectible.

With most prints, therefore, you should probably not think of added value at all. Instead, buy what pleases you. That should be your first criterion anyway — not the return on your investment.

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With few exceptions, the collecting of Northwest Coast Art did not begin until the 1970s. That means that pieces from those collections are just now starting to appear in estate sales – sometimes at bargain prices, if the heirs are more interested in quick cash than obtaining the full value. Consequently, when a copy of Lyle Wilson’s 1980 limited edition print “Shaman’s World “ showed up at the Inuit Gallery during the summer, I quickly snapped it up.

The print would be unusual today, but, when it first appeared, it must have seemed utterly unique. I tag it in my mind as a Northwest Coast Gothic, a kind of predecessor of Ron Telek’s work. It is also Gothic in a modern sense: monochromatic, macabre, and, quite possibly, self-consciously over the top.

The shaman’s world, apparently is actually two worlds, one the mundane world of light, and the other the dark world of the supernatural and other realms like the sky and the depths of the ocean. In the mundane world is the head of an eagle – perhaps a tutelary spirit to judge from the hand above it – while below it is a figure that may be a man terrified of the shaman, but which I suspect is a masked dancer, trying to make sense of reality through his dance. Meanwhile, in the spirit world, a man transforms into an eagle while below it swims a killer whale, another figure of power.

Neither world has much in common with the other except the shaman, who stands in the middle like a sort of ying-yang symbol, half of him in each world. Both worlds are contained in a frame of human figures (whose formline shapes suggest that they are intended as skeletons), birds and monsters that are apparently wolves. The tops and bottom of the frame are mirror images, perhaps adding the additional dimension of life and death to the cosmology contained within the print.

The shaman’s position, clearly enough, indicates that the shaman mediates between all aspects of the world, as well as their different methods of understanding. It might also be significant that the shaman is less skeletal than the human figures in the outer frame and has a differently shaped-head; perhaps the suggestion is that the shaman is the only piece truly alive.

The formlines in “Shaman’s World” are wonderfully simple, defined largely by interior elements to indicate knees and hips and chests. They flow from one shape to another, as good formline should, but so do the elements of the design. For instance, although the shaman’s arms are held in front his chest, the body of the human transforming into a bird and the first sprouting feathers look, at first, like an additional arm. Similarly, the twisted body and tail-flukes of the killer whale suggest a third leg. Together with the formlines, these flowing shapes help assure that the viewer’s eyes are never still, picking out a detail here and there, but always moving around the design.

Another obvious element is the use of blank space. Although much of the design is symmetrical, especially in the frame, the blank spaces on both sides of the shaman are highly irregular, being open and broad on the mundane side, and narrow and twisting on the spirit side. In this way, both the traditional symmetry of most Northwest Coast art and the asymmetrical preferences of modern design appear in the design – yet another set of elements that the shaman mediates between.

By restricting himself to black and white, Wilson relinquishes whatever a secondary or tertiary formline color might have brought to the print, but probably it is just as well – had he added red or blue or green, the design might have collapsed under its own weight. As things are, it is still a restless piece, full of contrasts and new elements to discover as your eye travels around it again and again.

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