As a current director of the YVR Art Foundation, I first saw the work of Coast Salish artist Cody LeCoy as part of his successful scholarship applications in 2011 and 2012. I was immediately struck by his impressionistic technique and surreal composition, as well as the thickness of the acrylic paint on his canvases. Buying one of his works was only a matter of waiting for the right canvas. The canvas turned out to be “Ridicule Mask,” which was hanging in the Lattimer Gallery.
Like the potlatch, the ridicule mask is one of the unique customs of many First Nations in the Pacific Northwest. When someone of high rank behaved improperly – for instance, by destroying goods in a display of pride and greed instead of distributing them – a ridicule mask would be displayed until they made retribution.
Often, ridicule masks show a half-ruined face, referring to a story of one chieftain who, in destroying oolichan grease – a form of wealth – in an effort to outdo rivals, badly burned himself. His injuries are considered a just punishment for his boastfulness and pride.
Modern first nations artists have often used the concept of the ridicule mask creatively. For example, several years ago in the Continuum exhibit at the Bill Reid Gallery, Mike Dangeli presented a ridicule mask whose subject was the treatment of the first nations by modern society.
However, LeCoy’s painting is more personal. Asked to comment on the painting, he emailed back that the painting was about “the idea of wealth coming from what is given away rather than what is hoarded. The main theme of the painting is awareness of one’s self to know the value of gifting, and to recognize thoughts and behaviors within – hopefully before others catch on – where greed can lurk around the corner.”
In other words, LeCoy makes the ridicule mask a private warning to avoid greed, instead of the traditional public shaming – a re-interpretation, perhaps, that highlights one of the differences between traditional and modern ways of life.
The split between ideal and incorrect behavior is seen throughout “Ridicule Mask.” On the left are unbalanced faces, divided vertically and horizontally. But where on a traditional mask, the division would be clearly defined, on canvas LeCoy can have them overlap, which makes their relationship even more psychologically ominous. In the middle are images of traditional ceremonies – specifically, the potlatch – which was the traditional mechanism for spreading wealth among the community and preventing hoarding by offering status and respect in return for generosity. The canvas ends on the right with an old growth tree that towers above the other figures, contrasting with the ridicule mask faces on the left and suggesting that the sharing of talents is what is natural.
These figures are reinforced by the mixed palette, which LeCoy describes as a mixture of “stagnancy and rejuvenation.” The stagnant colors, he writes, “represent the decay of something that is hoarded for one’s self. The original vitality of something (an object, an idea) goes stale if [it is only used] as a means of personal gain.” By contrast, the images of the potlatch are more brightly colored, and sky beside the tree is blue. However, in all sections of the painting, the colors are mixed, the bright colors highlighting the stagnant colors on the left, and darker colors creeping in between the color images in the rest of the canvas, as though to suggest that the two opposites are never far apart and, perhaps, only exist in relation to each other.
At twenty-three, LeCoy is still a young artist. For this reason, it is possible to see the influences of other artists in his work. Several people with whom I have discussed “Ridicule Mask” suggest that its surrealism is the influence of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, LeCoy’s mentor for his YVR Art Foundation Scholarships. Similarly, the tree on the right is strongly reminiscent of Emily Carr.
Yet if such influences are visible, they are combined with elements that are LeCoy’s own. The crowded canvas is saved from chaos by solid composition; mentally subtract the raven mask in the top center, for example, and the entire painting falls apart. Similarly, in the brush work with its mixture of colors and thickness of paint, LeCoy creates a sense of restlessness and variety that gives his work an originality that proves that he is an artist to watch.
I look forward to watching LeCoy’s talents develop. I suspect that, while “Ridicule Mask” is the first painting of his that I’ve bought, it won’t be the last.