Any exhibit by Haisla artist Lyle Wilson is worth seeing. With a career spanning thirty-five years, in media varying from wood to metal and from jewelry to sculpture, Wilson is one of the major figures in Northwest Coast Art, deserving to be mentioned alongside names like Robert Davidson and Dempsey Bob. However, “Paint,” his current exhibit at the Maple Ridge Art Gallery, is more worth lingering over than most.
For one thing, paint is not a medium that is popular in Northwest Coast art. Its place has largely been taken by limited edition prints, despite the fact that many artists experiment with it. Wilson in particular is not known for it, and went so far at the reception as to say that it was a medium that he disliked. However, given that Wilson says in the program book that he has done over seventy paintings in his career – forty of which are on display in “Paint” – and has stored many unsold for decades, this professed dislike should probably be received with some skepticism.
When Wilson talks about painting, especially the superiority of wood rather than canvas or paper, his tone is calm but clearly engaged, so perhaps the lack of a market has more to do with his claim than any personal preference. Wood, as he pointed out when I talked to him, is the traditional medium for most of the painting on the coast, and he agreed that “warmth” was a suitable adjective for describing its effect compared to canvas or paper.
Which brings up another point: unlike Wilson’s “North Star” exhibit three years ago, which was mostly a display of Wilson’s versatility in different media, “Paint” is about tradition and its role in modern art as much as media. This concern is highlighted in pieces like his illuminated map of traditional Haisla territory, or in his word paintings or his designs that include the major crests of the Haisla nation.
Less obviously, it shows in his attempts to trace ovoids and other elements from the northern style of design to the anatomy of local wildlife; for instance, he suggest that ovoids originate in the eyes of the skate fish.
Tradition, shows, too, in the marine life that crowds Wilson’s work. Skate, halibut, octopi, red cod, salmon – always salmon, the mainstay of traditional life – cluster in much of his work, like “Raven and the Fisherman.”
Other designs are closeups of marine life, or designs made from their intertwined bodies. Their predators, such as the raven, eagle, and the heron also appear. More than most local First Nations artists, Wilson is always mindful that the traditional culture was one that harvested the ocean and depended upon it.
Another way to look at “Paint” is from a personal level. A miniature Tsimshian-style house front and moon reflect Wilson’s personal studies.
One or two small paintings are studies for larger works, such as “Orca Chief,” which was the model for the sculpture “Orca Chief” at the Vancouver airport.
The exhibit shows, too, how Wilson mixes contemporary life with his artistic tradition, as in his alphabet or maps – the closest, perhaps, in contemporary culture that he can come to the role of art in Haisla tradition – and in his traditional orca spouting rainbows of color.
Circle the exhibit several times, and you can also start getting a sense of his preferred palette, a muted selection of colors far less vivid than, for instance, that of Robert Davidson. In fact, much of Wilson’s strongest work is black and white, where his control of contrast is as subtle as it is effective.
“Paint” is a show that is as intellectual as it is personal. Thankfully, it is accompanied by a sixty-six page catalog that combines Wilson’s artistic statements with personal memories and the sometimes fragmentary remnants of his culture past, as well as a strong plea for a revival of interest in the Haisla language, which is quickly approaching extinction. Far from being the usual collection of glittering generalities, this is a catalog rich in personal and cultural biography that adds genuine aesthetic and intellectual appreciation to the exhibit itself.
In fact, ideally, anyone interested in Northwest Coast art should attend the exhibit, then take the catalog home and read it slowly and carefully in preparation for a second, more informed visit (which is what I hope to do myself, even though Maple Ridge is a ninety minute bus ride away). But even if you can only manage one trip, “Paint” is a major show by a major artist, and you are sure to come away with a stronger sense not just of the artist and his art, but also of the culture behind them.