Paintings have never been a large part of modern Northwest Coast Art. Since the 1960s, artists have preferred to release limited edition prints instead. Recently, though, this trend has shown signs of changing.
Ever since the 1960s, limited prints have been far more common than paintings. The reason is simple economics: A limited print costs the buyer anywhere from half to one-tenth the price of a painting, which pleases buyers not interested in an investment. If a run of a hundred can be sold, the artist makes much more than they would from a painting – enough, with luck, to allow them to earn a living from their art.
As a result, limited prints have long been the norm in Northwest Coast Art, despite the forgeries that have been periodically discovered. By contrast, artists interested in painting have often found selling their work to galleries difficult. A few exceptions exist, such as Robert Davidson in the last decade, but they are exceptions because of their fame.
A better indication of the status of paintings in Northwest Coast art is the fact that even an artist as accomplished as Lyle Wilson could only manage a show consisting entirely of paintings this year – and at least two-thirds of the pieces were completed decades ago and had never sold. Meanwhile, an artist’s first limited print is still seen as an important step in their career.
However, the days when prints could be counted on to fund an artist’s career are rapidly coming to an end. Hundreds are entering a market that once sustained dozens, thanks in part to the relative cheapness of producing a print from a computer compared to traditional silk screening.
Perhaps as a result, the average price of a print has declined or remained static, with many prints available for well under a hundred dollars unless the artist is well-known. Moreover, where, thirty-five years ago, so-called limited prints could have a release of five or six hundred copies, now releases of a hundred, or fifty, or even twenty have become common, partly to reduce forgery and partly to ensure that artists are not left with a large inventory of unsellable prints.
At the same time, Northwest Coast artists are more closely connected to other schools of art than they have been at any time in the last sixty years. Artists like Dean and Shawn Hunt have succeeded to some extent in selling canvases outside the usual Northwest Coast markets, and new artists – an increasing number of whom have attended art school – are becoming more interested in painting as well. In fact, I know several young artists who began working on canvas and only learned carving and metalwork later.
Whether on wood, paper, or canvas, painting has suddenly become semi-respectable. The Douglas Reynolds Gallery has been showing an increasing number of high-end paintings over the last couple years. Similarly, Lyle Wilson may have had to go to the suburb of Maple Ridge rather than downtown Vancouver to mount his recent Paint show, but the point is he managed to have the exhibit. And, as I write, I have just returned from the Lattimer Gallery’s opening reception for “medium: Painting on Canvas,” an exhibit of over fifteen canvases by both new and leading artists.
Slowly, painting is becoming acceptable in Northwest Coast art. It still has a ways to go – according to Peter Lattimer, for many of the artists in his exhibit, working on canvas was a new and not wholly comfortable experience. But the change is coming, all the same.
Most likely, painting will not replace limited prints. A handful of top artists are still doing well with limited prints, and will probably continue to do so for years. However, a day might come within the next decade when most limited prints are viewed as tourist wares and no longer as fine art.