Luke Marston is a Coast Salish artist whose work is much in demand. In the summer of 2009, he and his brother John had an exhibit at the Inuit Gallery that must have set records for the prices obtained by artists in their mid-careers. Since then, neither has sustained those prices, but each continues to be much sought-after (Luke, for the record, is the brother who does the astonishing masks and historical recreations). Never having had the money when I saw one of his works that I admired, I was glad to pick up a remarque of his print “Family.”
Released for his wedding, according to Elaine Monds of The Alcheringa Gallery, “Family” (I suppose) shows Marston’s eagle crest embracing the wolf crest of his bride. Because of its thick, dark lines, the wolf is the figure that stands out the most – the wing and leg of the eagle are noticeable only after your eye discerns the wolf, and the rest of the eagle only comes later.
However, as the eye takes in the complete design, the wolf – contrary to the ferocity you might expect – seems smaller and more fragile than the eagle, clinging for protection to the eagle. By contrast, the eagle seems more rigid and less emotional or vulnerable.
Given the occasion, it is tempting to speculate on whether this contrast suggests Marston’s view of his personality and his wife, or perhaps his feeling of protectiveness for her, although I have no idea whether that is true. However, the interpretation gains credibility when you consider that the eagle’s wing is raised as though sheltering the wolf, and that the wolf almost seems to be burrowing beneath it.
There is also a formalized sexuality in the design, with the eagle’s hock joint pointing towards the wolf’s mid-section suggesting a penis, although of course birds lack external sex organs. Similarly, while the interior design elements in the wolf’s thigh serve the practical purpose of reducing the thickness of the leg, the ovoid is almost positioned high enough to suggest an x-ray view of the uterus. This ovoid is echoed in the ovoid formed by the eagle’s claws, which are point at the wolf’s thigh.
Another contrast between the two figures is that the thinner lines of the eagle’s head and beak (and, to a lesser extent, the tail feathers) seem more realistically rendered than the rest of the design. Again, armchair psychology is tempting; in choosing to depict his crest in two different design styles, is Marston suggesting that he sees himself as belonging to two worlds or traditions? Or is the depiction merely a matter of design, created simply to balance the thicker lines of the rest of the design?
You can see comparable figures in most Northwest Coast traditions without having to search very far. However, despite that obvious fact, in some ways, this design hardly registers to my eye as a Northwest Coast design at all.
For one thing, few Northwest Coast designs leave the top and bottom of the design space undecorated except for a few simple lines.
Even more importantly, the all-black design and the sweeping curves remind me strongly of the work of Aubrey Beardsley. In fact, it is the curves that first draw my eye: The long line from the top of the eagle’s wing to the bottom of the design, the coat hanger-like design element at the top, and the curling line of the wolf’s tail. These three lines enclose most of the rest of the design in an off-centered oval, positioning the gaze of the viewer without being perfectly symmetrical itself. Supporting them are mirror-image angles such as those on the two heads, or the inversion of the two legs that is emphasized by the ovoid element in each. All these things give “Family” something approaching an Art Nouveau sensibility.
Last summer, I saw “Family” for sale without any additions. However, Marston has also chosen to release a number of the prints with a remarque in pencil in the blank space at the bottom of the design. The remarque shown here is frog. I have asked whether the frog is a family crest, but have not received any reply from Marston.
However, given the metamorphis in the frog’s life cycle and its amphibious habits, frogs are generally seen as figures of power throughout the Northwest Coast cultures. This background makes the frog a fitting symbol of a life transition such as marriage. But whether Marston himself chose it for that reason is uncertain; since other remarques include a raven or eagle, perhaps he doesn’t.
But whichever way you look at “Family,” it remains an elegant piece from an artist with an accomplished sense of design. I might even say that its simplicity and small size – about fifteen by forty centimeters – makes it more accessible than some of Marston’s larger pieces. I still hope to afford a major work by Marston one day, but, meanwhile, “Family” is a small sample of what he can do.