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.