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Archive for the ‘art galleries’ Category

Twenty-years ago, I happened to be in a gallery when a First Nations man was talking to the owner. He was selling copies of a relative’s work – his father, I believe he said. They were loosely rendered works in a style I had never seen before, and I was immediately intrigued. I bought two as birthday presents for my partner, although I had never heard of the artist, Henry Speck. Nor could I find any information about him aside from the fact that he was Kwakwaka’wakw. I concluded that he was a minor figure and that his relative had exaggerated his importance.

Last week, I finally learned more by visiting The Satellite Gallery’s small show, “Projections: The Paintings of Henry Speck, Udzi’stalis”. It turns out that Henry Speck was a Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief, fisherman, and artist. While he had been painting since the 1930s, his moment of greatest recognition came in 1964 when the New Design Gallery held an exhibition of his work – an exhibition that was almost unheard of for any First Nations artist at the time. Even Bill Reid, who could be scathingly scornful of anything non-Haida, acknowledged his work as “far beyond anything attempted before in Kwakiutl art” (although, strangely, Reid did not include Speck’s work in his seminal “Art of the Raven” exhibit in 1967).

In other words, Speck is one of the bridges between the decline in traditional First Nations culture and art in the early 1900s and the renaissance that began midway through the same century.

This current show hints more than once that Speck might be considered a modernist, and it is easy to see why. Surrealists and modern artists like Jackson Pollack have been fascinated by the masks and paintings of the Northwest Coast and their obvious sophistication, and have tried to give their impressions of what they saw – usually very poorly, since they had almost no understanding of the artistic traditions they were seeing.

To a degree, Speck’s work is equally impressionistic, obviously sketched in ink or paint, and without the close attention to exact lines and curves that you see in traditional artists today such as Richard Hunt. His work also has individual idiosyncrasies, such as using short parallel lines or rows of irregular circles to fill empty space that – so far as I know – have no antecedent in Kwakwaka’wakw art.

However, the difference between Speck and the mainstream surrealists and moderns is that Speck had at least some understanding of the traditions he was depicting. Consequently, while his art seems less disciplined than that of modern traditional artists, his work does not seem glaringly wrong or poorly-observed so much as individualistic. Like many recent First Nations artists, his work does not fall neatly into either the modern or traditionalist categories, but seems to contain elements of both.

The “Projections” show is disappointingly small, with no more than a dozen original pieces, none of which is larger than 16×20 inches. However, taking the lead from Bill Reid’s observation that Speck’s work seems unnaturally confined at these sizes, and would benefit from being much larger, “Projections” includes a large slide show based on the Speck collection at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary that partly compensates for the lack of originals. Not only was Reid quite right in his observation, but seeing Speck’s work on slides restores the often-faded colors of the originals.

Behind the screen for the slides is a loop of archival footage of Speck and his work. by modern standards, the film clips are often gratingly patronizing, as journalists try to adjust to the idea of a First Nations artist. Is it hard to work in the traditional art, they ask Speck, when as a modern man he can’t believe in what he is depicting, the way he might have a century ago? Does he see a conflict between his subject matter and his own Christianity? But Speck, although unassuming, is far from the naïve native that the journalists assume, and answers with more graciousness than his questioners had any right to expect.

“Projections” is a show that can be easily absorbed in seventy minutes, and I wish it was larger. Yet, even as it is, the show goes some ways towards to restoring Speck to the position he deserves in the history of local First Nations art. And, finally, I have the context for the copies I bought so many years ago.

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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.

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Alano Edzerza is a thirty-year-old Tahltan artist whose work ranges from architectural commissions and uniforms for the Dutch Olympic team to T-shirts and hoodies. Although he sometimes duplicates the same design in different media a little too often, on the whole, his work is a good example of how you can find something for every budget in Northwest Coast art. So long as you’re not looking for one-of-a-kind pieces, you can often find pieces of work for $200-$500 in the gallery that carries his name.

For example, one of the pieces usually available at his shop is this Chilkat belt buckle:

Edzerza has often worked with Chilkat designs, but, because they originate in weaving patterns, seeing a single element like this is startling. More often, a Chilkat design will have a number of elements, often repeated, with the result that you rarely linger over a single element. Isolated here, the design gives you the chance to study the face at length. In fact, it wasn’t until seeing this belt buckle that I realized that Chilkat designs (of which I know very little) are structurally closer to the formline designs of paintings and carvings than I had realized.

Edzerza also occasionally sells castings of other artists’ work, like this one taken from a pendant by Mark Prescott, whose prints have been available in the Edzerza Gallery:

The pendant is non-traditional, of course – if anything, the crouching figure of the shaman reminds me of some Old Norse drawings I have seen of Woden. This (presumably) accidental resemblance seems appropriate, since, like the Old Norse god, this shaman with a rattle in his right hand and a knife in his left combines elements of both the magician and the warrior.

Edzerza has also done a casting of an eagle pendant by Marcel Russ. I believe the original is in argillite:

Unfortunately, this picture suffers from the limitations of my digital camera. As a result, you will have to take my word that this casting manages to capture the strong sense of line for which Russ is famous. That is not an easy thing to do, and many casts I have seen of original works are muddied versions of the original. But here, Edzerza – who also shows a love of a good line, both in the occasional borrowing and his own original ones – has managed to give a strong suggestion of what the original must look like.

Works like these do not increase in value like exclusive works. But, at their best – as in these three pieces – such commercial works make a bit of beauty accessible to any budget.

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I spent the afternoon at the opening for the Northern Exposure show at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery. This is an annual show for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art, featuring the graduating class and the pick of the work by first year students. Besides giving students some extra cash, the show also teaches students how to deal with a gallery and an exhibition. So, naturally, when I was talking to the students, a common topic was whether they should try to place more pieces in galleries or find other ways to make a living from their art.

The question, I found, is hard to answer in the abstract. Not only does the answer depend on the galleries involved, but I suspect that the details of the answer are starting to change.

On the one hand, a gallery that is enthusiastic about an artists’ work can be the best advertising that the artist can have. The gallery staff can draw visitors’ attention to the artist to increase their sales. The gallery can act as an unofficial agent, passing commissions on to the artist. I’ve heard of gallery owners advising artists about what is selling, and the prices that buyers are willing to pay. They can promote an artist in a group show – or, better yet, a solo show. Artists can’t expect a gallery to promise to buy regularly (“That would mean we were taking on responsibility for an artist earning a living,” one gallery employee remarked to me), but an unofficial agreement that an artist will give a gallery first right of refusal for new works can benefit everyone.

On the other hand, horror stories about galleries are common. I have on good – but strictly anonymous – authority that certain gallery owners regularly break verbal agreements, all the while insisting that written contracts aren’t necessary. Some, too, delay payment for months; in one case I know about, the artist had to wait ten months for over ten thousand dollars. Artists who ask about such delays have had gallery owners scream abuse at them.

However, regardless of how a gallery treats artists, all of them have one thing in common: They stand between artists and their audience. This relation has the advantage of freeing artists from having to promote themselves. But it also means that 40-60% of the total price of a piece goes to the gallery. Considering that literary agents charge 15-20% for the same services, artists may feel that the price is too high, no matter how good the services are.

Fortunately, for artists who feel that way, the Internet provides some alternatives. Websites, Facebook fan pages, and microblogs like Twitter all provide ways for artists to interact directly with their audiences, bypassing the galleries entirely, if they choose. With free software content management systems like Joomla! or Drupal, artists can even conduct online auctions, using Paypal or credit card services for payment. As for pricing, artists can charge more than the wholesale price they receive and still offer prices that are lower than a gallery would charge.

And, increasingly, artists are taking full advantage of these alternatives. One senior First Nations artist says that 80% of his sales come from the Internet. Another estimates that about one-third of his sales are online, and is trying to boost that fraction every way he can.

But artists pay a price when taking control of their sales in this way. They have to learn marketing skills, which can make them nervous and uncomfortable if they are inexperienced or introverted. They have to learn the principles of commercial design, which are very different from the art they create. They not only have to create their initial web pages or Facebook pages, but keep them constantly replenished with new content, because nothing looks less professional than a long outdated web presence. If buyers are unsatisfied, they have to deal with the problem themselves. Most important of all, they either have to spend time on business and promotion – perhaps as much as a third of their working hours, especially at first – or find a sympathetic friend or family member or maybe a consultant to do the work for them. With these demands, some artists might feel that the price for taking full control of their career is too high.

Yet another problem is that an artist can make a living promoting themselves, but, in doing so, they become invisible to the traditional art market. If that happens, then the artists may not be mentioned in art books, or approached by governments and other institutions for large commissions.

My own suspicion is that, despite the disadvantages, an increasing number of artists will start to market themselves. Most Northwest Coast artists I know are doing some online promotion, although none (so far as I know) are doing all they could. In the future, galleries will continue to exist, but they may have less control over artists than they have traditionally had, because the alternatives will be too well-known.

Whatever happens, artists today have a choice that they didn’t have fifteen years ago. However, what choices they should make depends very much on their own skills, personality, and preferences.

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Yesterday in a local gallery, I saw a Northwest Coast mask selling for $22,000. The price surprised me, because, ordinarily, only a recognized master could ask this sort of price. However, the carver was an artist I would characterize as an experienced journeyman – someone known for his skill an with a growing celebrity, but lacking the years and a sufficient body of work to be considered a master.

Tentatively and politely, I suggested to a gallery employee that the mask was over-priced. I was told that the carver had originally planned on asking for even more.

This was not the first time I have seen artists asking higher prices than their reputation would justify, and it never fails to arouse mixed feelings in me.

On the one hand, an artist’s ability to command a price is not tied absolutely to their reputation. If an artist can find someone to buy at what I consider an inflated price, then in the most basic sense, that is all the justification the price.

Moreover, why shouldn’t artists get the best price they can? The typical Northwest Coast artist starts by selling so cheaply that the price hardly repays the price of their labor. Part of me argues that, after years of underselling their work to keep the gallery system going, artists deserve a little bit of compensation later in their careers (although, personally, I’d like to see fairer prices for newer artists).

On the other hand, the hierarchy of prices is well-established for Northwest Coast masks. New artists’ work usually sells for less than $1500, usually with 40-60% of the retail price going to the artist. As artists become better known, their prices gradually rise, although the size of a mask and its finishing details can also affect the price. When their prices hit about $4000 for an average-sized mask, you know that the artists are starting to be respected. When the prices rise to $6,000-$8000, you know you are dealing with well-respected artists. Over $10,000, and the artists are recognized as masters. At prices above $20,000, artists have international reputations like those of Bill Reid or Robert Davidson.

Exceptions exist to this rough outline – for instance, as acknowledged masters, both Beau Dick and Henry Green could increase their prices by fifty percent or more and probably still sell. However, this hierarchy is the norm, and recognized by most Northwest Coast artists.

To go outside this pricing scale is dangerous for an artist. Prices that are set too high can condemn an artists’ work to gathering dust in the gallery. But, just as importantly, when artists set their prices higher than their status, it seems to me a form of boasting. For instance, the mask I saw yesterday seems to proclaim that the artist considers himself the equal of all the great names in Northwest Coast art – to which I can only answer that he might be some day, but he isn’t yet. The mask was certainly skilled, but it was hardly outstanding, either. I have seen (and bought) masks at a fraction of the price that I considered better works of art.

Possibly, I’m showing a middle-class crassness with these reactions. At the best of times, I find a system in which even mediocre works by a major artist are worth more than an outstanding work by an unknown artist. But I do know that I would feel foolish buying a piece at an inflated price. Even if I could afford such prices, I would feel in the back of my mind that I had been conned, and that would diminish my enjoyment of the art.

So maybe it’s just as well that the price I saw yesterday was beyond what I could afford, and that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the mask. In this case, the question of putting my money where my ambivalence is doesn’t arise. But I wonder what I would do if I see a similarly over-priced piece that I really would like about the house.

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(Note: Because the staff was unsure which exhibits the artists had given permission to photograph, I was unable to take pictures)

When I go to an art gallery, I come prepared to be pleased. Just as when I go to a movie or go to a book, I generally arrive with few expectations. I try to practice the concept that I should understand a work in its own terms, and not through the filter of expectations that I bring with me. Over the years, I have found that this approach has allowed me to appreciate things that I might otherwise have dismissed.

I mention my perspective because I have to report, very much against my wishes, that the new exhibit at the Bill Reid Gallery, “Continuum: Vision and Creativity on the Northwest Coast” is a disappointment. The fact that it comes after the gallery’s first successful show that highlighted Bill Reid’s career, and shares space with the dazzling permanent collection of Reid’s jewelry only makes the show’s failure all the greater.

For the most part, the problem is not with the artists. True, a few of the artists chose to submit the physical equivalent of one-liners. For instance, Shawn Hunt’s “Trickster,” which shows Raven perched atop a can of clam chowder is amusing at first glance, with its reference to Andy Warhol’s famous silkscreen (and also an indication of how Bill Reid’s “Raven and First Men” has altered the traditional story in modern minds, since the recorded historical versions mention a different type of shell). But, on second glance, what the incongruity means remains elusive. It seems only a poke at the commercialization of Northwest Coast art in a way that has already been done before. Personally, given the design ability displayed in Hunt’s Raven, with the grinning faces as part of the body and wing, I would far rather see what he does with less derivative work, especially since he is a relatively new artist.

A similarly limited work is Moy Sutherland’s “The Negotiator.” Sutherland, whose work I have often admired elsewhere, is not the first artist to add First Nations politics into his work. But where Charles Heit (Ya’Ya) rarely lost sight of his art and his comments had an angry wit to them. Sutherland’s use of Canadian flags, five dollar bills, and a dangling carrot is simply angry. It can be reduced to a single short sentence: He is angry with the people negotiating land claims on behalf of his nation. Any work that can be reduced to fourteen words, I submit, is not art at all, regardless of whether I sympathize with the sentiment, as I do with Sutherland’s.

However, the majority of the work exhibit present an interesting variety. In contrast to Sutherland’s work, Mike Dangeli’s “’Redemption’ Ridicule Mask” presents a much more complex reaction to the situation of the First Nations, using an old tradition to comment on contemporary politics.

Similarly, Ian Reid creates a new effect by placing Chilkat patterns and colors on a raven mask. He did so, he explained as an acknowledgement of Tlingit and Tsimshian women who introduced the Chilkat patterns into Heiltsuk society. At a time when many First Nations people are descended from multiple nations or are half European in ethnicity, he said, this acknowledgement seems particularly appropriate. The juxtapostion of two different traditional media more than justified Reid’s motivation, resulting in an arresting and original effect.

Dan Wallace also placed Chilkat patterns in a new medium by engraving them on his silver bracelet, “Remembering our Royalty.” Like Reid, Wallace emphasizes the importance of looking back at history while reflecting on the current situation, and, like Reid, produces a new artistic effect as he does so.

Other pieces worth seeing included a traditional Tsimshian mask and a stop-action video of its carving by Phil Gray, Sonny Assu’s graffiti-like canvas with its reds and pinks and grays, Dean Hunt’s traditional-looking mask “Pk’vs: Wild Man of the Woods,” and Aaron Nelson-Moody’s red cedar and copper panel “Copper Man.” Nor should I forget to mention the wealth textile works, such as Marianne Nicolson’s “Tunic for a Noblewoman,” done in memory of her grandmother; Krista Point’s untitled Salish blanket; Teri Rofkar’s “Tlingit Robe,” and Carrie Anne Vanderhoop’s “Dream of Dragonflies.” Individually, all these works were well-worth lingering over and returning for second and third and fourth looks.

The problem is, while most of the works in the exhibit stand on their own merits, they seem to add up to nothing as an exhibit. Part of the problem may be that the show seems to have changed directions, starting as an exhibit of young artists but transforming into an exhibit with the theme of the tensions between the contemporary and the traditional and adding older, more established artists. But, for whatever reason, the result is a seeming random collection of artists.

For all the obvious skill of individual artists, there seems no particular reason why these particular artists were chosen. Any of four or five dozen other artists could have been swapped in instead, and the impression left by the exhibit as a whole would not be significantly changed (As if in confirmation of this statement, after I left the exhibit, I saw Andrew Dexel, the graffiti artist, at one of the Aboriginal Days booths outside the Vancouver art gallery).

Another problem is that, with only one work allowed per artist at the most (one bracelet was the work of three), you have trouble appreciating anyone’s work. A quarter of the artists, and four or five works apiece would help visitors to gauge each artists’ range. Given the number of newer artists in the exhibit, that sort of context would have been welcome.

As things are, the result is that seeing “Continuum” is not much different from seeing the latest work at a commercial gallery. In fact, I have seen larger shows at commercial galleries, as well as chances to meet the artists that did not include a request for donations at the door.

Nothing is really wrong with such a show – I guess. But the Bill Reid Gallery is not a commercial gallery, and is obviously struggling to be something more. Its difficulty is that it is still struggling to define what that something else might be. In “Continuum,” I suspect it temporarily lost its way in academic critical jargon and posturing (if the catalog is any judge).

I can only hope that, with its next show, the Bill Reid Gallery returns to the success of its first show. If it does, then I will be happy to report the fact. Meanwhile, so far as “Continuum” is concerned, “disappointment” is the mildest word that I can honestly choose.

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Last night, I was at the reception for Tahltan artist Alano Edzerza’s new exhibit, “Gift of the Raven.” The show features Edzerza’s work of the last six months. Also on display were a number of pieces by Morgan Green, a recent recipient of the YVR Art Foundation Scholarship and (as she may be tired of hearing) the daughter of Tsimshian master carver Henry Green.

The evening started with a performance of “Raven Steals the Light” by Victor Reece’s Big Sky Multi-Media Storytelling Society. The performance was held in the courtyard of the Waterfall Building, the complex in which the Edzerza Gallery is located. It featured a dancer with suitably nervous bird-like movements and a light mask with mirrors for eyes, and ended with him climbing to an overhead walkway to conclude the performance – all in all, a successful blending of the traditional and the contemporary.

Then, the crowd squeezed inside the gallery for the viewing.

The show did not include any new traditional style work by Edzerza. Otherwise, it was a good representation of the different strains in his work. My main problem was dodging the crowd and finding gaps in it that lasted long enough to snap a picture. Combined with the fact that some paintings were hung high, the result is pictures that are less than professional quality (to say the least), but should give some idea of what was on display.

In one corner of the front of the gallery was a collection of Edzerza’s glass boxes:

alano-glass-boxes1

Elsewhere, you could see some of his experiments with color, such as this collection of closeups of traditional formline designs done in the electric colors of pop-art on a back wall:

alano-colors

The same pop-art sensibility appeared in a couple of contemporary paintings of frogs, which were inspired, I am told, by a tattoo on a woman’s back:

alano-frog3

But the major works in the exhibit were the multi-panel ones, like this one that was hung near the ceiling, facing the door:

alano-orca-multi

Another orca design, a triptych, was hung just inside the door, and a triptych featuring ravens on the back wall. The raven triptych was especially dramatic, as one of its panel shows:

alano-eagle-triptych2

All these multi-panel works shared features that are characteristic of Edzerza’s work: A three-dimensional contemporary take on traditional Northwest Coast designs, an experiment with color in mainly grayscale designs, and a dramatic sense of movement that is enhanced by the separate canvases and draws your eyes from one to the next.

Morgan Green is not as an experienced an artist as Edzerza, but, in the last year, her work has matured quickly. Previously, the work by Green that I knew best were her leather cuffs and a somewhat over-ornate wolf helmet in the gallery, but the works I saw last night shows some other sides to her work, and an interest in different media that, if anything, is even greater than Edzerza’s.

Green’s works included a wall hanging and a variety of earth-colored ceramics inspired by a recent trip to Arizona and the First Nations work she saw there. A plate depicting Mouse Woman was particularly striking:

morgan-green-mouse-woman-plate

So far as I know, no historical depictions of Mouse Woman survive. But Green’s rendering seems a reasonable one, with features like the ears, the round eyes and the incisors providing the defining features that you would expect in a traditional design. At the same time, placing the design on grainy ceramic creates a pictograph-like effect, all the more so because the formline is hinted at more than fully realized.

Perhaps the most accomplished work by Green on display was a Dogfish Woman robe she had created for an elder. The design was fairly standard (that is to say, more or less a descendant of Charles Edenshaw’s sketch via Bill Reid), but the cutting of the design and the assembly of the robe made for a first rate piece of work. As Green was discussing it with some of the guests, one of them agreed to model it:

morgan-green-dogfish-woman-robe

The evening was a fund-raiser, with a quarter of all sales going to the Vancouver Foundation. How successful the evening was a fund-raiser, I didn’t ask. But from the perspective of spotlighting two promising young artists, no one could have asked for more. I came away from the evening with increased respect for both, and an even greater determination to watch and enjoy their future growth.

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