I never buy art unless it catches the eye or intrigues me in some other way. However, some purchases loom larger than others , and Gary Minaker Russ’ “Haida Sharkwoman” is one of them. I am not talking about price (although “Haida Sharkwoman” is one of the more expensive pieces that I’ve bought), nor size (although at fifty-three pounds, it is one of the heaviest), but about artistic integrity and excellence, both of which the piece has to spare.
Minaker is best-known as an argillite carver. Working with hand tools and preferring natural finishes, he has a tendency to go his his own way that some gallery owners think has hurt his career, but that keeps his work original. In the last few years, he has been resisting the pressure to carve for the market and produce copies of Bill Reid’s “Raven and First Men” or endless variations on Raven stealing the light. He has also been chafing at the growing tendency for inlays of precious and semi-precious stones and metals on argillite, which drives up the prices while rarely improving the actual lines of carvings.
Consequently, he has been branching out and trying to create a new market in Brazilian soapstone in the hopes of finding greater artistic freedom. He has had mixed success, he tells me: private collectors have no trouble accepting his new direction, but many galleries do. Still, he perseveres, partly because it is easier to find large pieces of soapstone than of argillite to produce such pieces as “Haida Sharkwoman.”
Forty-five centimeters long and thirty-five wide, “Haida Sharkwoman” is carved on one side and flat on the back. The asymmetrical curve on the right, Minaker says, was in the raw block, and only required refining.
Sharkwoman (not to be confused with Dogfish Woman, whom Charles Edenshaw and Bill Reid made famous) is a subject that Minaker has returned to many times in his work, just as Beau Dick keeps returning to the Bukwis and Tsonoqua. He suggests, only half-jokingly, that the subject reflects the difficulties he has had with the women in his life, adding that he tries to restrict himself to no more than one return to the subject each year.
The sculpture shows a woman half-way through a transformation into a shark. In modern northwest coast art, such a transformation is often depicted as a twisting of a person’s existing limbs, rather like the werewolf transformations seen in modern computer-generated special effects. That approach is unquestionably dramatic, but Minaker has chosen to depict the new shape as a blanket draped over the figure, as in the old stories. Here, you have the shark’s fins falling over the woman’s head like a hood, as her face, still showing her labret, is slowly transformed by the gills and flat snout of the shark.
The sculpture is dominated by the abstract carving style of the face and the fins. However, at the bottom right is a more realistic set of fingers half-covered by hair. This contrast emphasizes the transformation; it is only when your glance falls on the realistic hand that you realize that the transformation is taking place.
Notice, too, that the position of the hand suggests that the woman is propping herself up on her stomach against a rock, waiting for the transformation to complete so that she can begin to breathe the water.
The carving is further enhanced by one of the most sinuous and three-dimensional formlines that I have ever seen, beginning at the lower right of the fin, and twisting up to the eyebrows. From there, it continues around the face and jawbone to rejoin the right fin again, keeping the viewers’ eye in constant motion. And, should you detour down the nose or around the lip, the gills are on both cheeks to force your gaze back to the main formline. As a result, you soon tend to attribute the movement of your own eyes to the sculpture itself, and start imagining that its eyes are moving to watch you – not necessarily in a menacing way, but definitely an alert one.
I say “necessarily,” because the impression that “Haida Sharkwoman” makes can vary wildly. The combination of the formline and the reflective quality of the soapstone makes the sculpture look dramatically different in various lights. I have seen it a pale beige in bright sunlight, looking serene; golden in the reflected light of a flash, looking otherworldly, and dark in the shadows, looking sinister. The piece is so varied that I can get a different perspective on it simply by moving it to a different location.
One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that it tends to dominate a room, no matter where it’s put. After several experiments, I’ve given in and placed it on top of the TV cabinet, which most of the living room centers on anyway. As a major piece of art, it seems to belong there.