When I was in Terrace last April, I returned with two artist proofs from Jared “Citizen” Kane, a young First Nations artist who affects hip-hop clothes and attitudes. Both these works – one entitled simply “Moon” and the other “Love Birds” – interested me as examples of what computer-assisted art does easily and what it struggles with in Northwest Coast art.
Both these pieces are based on popular images. Neither image is claimed by a particular family, so artists can use them without being accused of appropriating someone else’s property. “Moon” is a successful blending of the traditional crescent of the moon with a more modern sketch of a face, while “Love Birds” combines a traditional split image with lightly concealed heart-shapes of European origin. “Moon” is striking for its simplicity, “Love Bird” for its intricacy, as well as for the placement of a central T-shape with foreshortened arms that could be interpreted as either male or female genitals, but both are identifiable at a glance as being designed on the computer.
I spend far too much time on a computer myself to see anything wrong with making art on the computer. The days are long past when people objected to pole makers rough-shaping the wood with chainsaws, and computers seem to me nothing more than another way that artists can make their work easier.
However, the idea of computer-assisted art remains far from generally accepted in Northwest Coast Art. In the case of several established artists who dislike the very idea, part of the reaction may be due to their own lack of computer literacy. However, they will add that they consider computer-assisted art lacking in warmth and individualism. But artists like Alano Edzerza have shown the possibility of bold, original works designed on the computer. And, really, the idea is no different from the manual templates used by some artists on the coast for over two centuries.
Still, computer-assisted art generally leaves its mark. Like many of the pieces created since Bill Holm in the 1960s codified the conventions of the northern formline tradition, it emphasizes geometry and symmetry in a way that traditional art did only part of the time. It is not so much that a piece like Kane’s “Moon” adds an unnecessary line to create a complete circle instead of a crescent, but that each of the ovoids, U-forms, and other shapes has a single template. Graphics software allows these templates to be scaled and rotated, or even distorted, but they remain obviously based on the same source.
In addition, because the templates are available, computer-generated designs tend to be less varied in general. In formline design, part of the craft is how the thickness of the formlilne changes according to the need of the design. Look, for example, at the work of Todd Stephens, a Terrace-based Nisga’a artist, and you will see that the broadest formline can be up to ten times that of the thinnest, which is often as thin as single brushstroke can make it. By contrast, in Kane’s “Love Bird,” the difference is may be four times.
Another place for variation in formline design is the variety of techniques for avoiding too much thickening of the line where two formlines meet. These techniques can include thinning the tips of one or both lines, or adding a T-shape or some other element in the middle of the two lines to thin out the filled space between them. Kane uses both techniques, but the thinning is minimal in both pieces, and he uses fewer varieties of techniques than many manual artists.
Although I suppose that in theory there is no reason that artists working on a computer could not make asymmetrical designs (which were a much larger part of the local traditions than is sometimes credited in these post-Holm days), or vary technique more, in practice they seldom do. The natural tendency is against both asymmetry and variation and for consistency. There is nothing wrong with this tendency, but it means that computer-assisted design is more likely to be bold rather than nuanced and varied. Even the relative intricacy of “Love Birds” looks far less detailed and more striking than a hand-drawn similar design, like Shawn Aster‘s “Raven Heart,”) another piece on display in my townhouse.
In general, though, Kane makes the computer work for him rather than against him, producing designs that almost insist on being enlarged, and, in “Love Birds,” adding more variation than many artists who have attempted to work on the computer. In the future, I’m going to keep my eye out for what he is designing – manually as well as on the computer.