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Kelly Robinson is one of my favorite First Nations artists. I live with two of his paintings and three of his masks, all of which are strikingly different. Partly, his versatility is explained by the fact he works in both the Nuxalk and Nuu-chah-nulth traditions, but, whatever the reason, he is always trying something new. “Shamed Spirit” is no exception, although I have put off writing about it for several months, waiting for him to tell me more.

Until the other week, the mask didn’t even have a name. Robinson himself seems reluctant to talk about it, suggesting it is highly personal.

I recognized, of course, that it is a ridicule mask. Ridicule masks are a tradition on the Northwest Coast, a public display reproof of someone’s behavior through the destruction of artwork. This gesture is, perhaps, comparable to the breaking of a copper, as Beau Dick did a few years ago on the grounds of the British Columbia legislature and later at the Canadian Parliament Buildings – a gesture of contempt emphasized by the destruction of something personal and beautiful.

Modern ridicule masks generally feature the marring of half a mask. Often, they make a similar statement to Dick’s breaking of a copper; I remember Mike Dangeli, for example, contributing a ridicule mask that was an overt comment about the treatment of the First Nations to the opening show at the Bill Reid Gallery.

However, I still don’t know whether Robinson intends a similar comment. From a couple of hints, it might be a comment about sexual abuse, although how personal or how political it might be, I am no means sure.

Still, no matter what the target of the mask might be, it remains a powerful symbol. From the right side of the mask, you can see that the design is a mature display of skill, simple yet striking and well-finished. The left side, which Robinson tells me actually spent some time in a fire (and still smells like it did) is both a tragedy for lovers of art, and an expression of strong emotion. After all, who destroys such a piece of art without a strong motivation?

The whole idea of a ridicule mask seems the ultimate example of passive-aggressiveness, a gesture whose sincerity is undeniable, yet comes at a tremendous cost, both personally and aesthetically. I can only hope that one day I get to hear the story behind “Shamed Spirit,” because as a statement, it seems important – even to my limited understanding. But, then, who says that art is supposed to be easy?

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I have always had misgivings about trigger warnings, the labels for movies and books that are supposed to allow the traumatized to avoid any unpleasantness. To my way of thinking, they are a presumption, a judgment on an artist’s work that is all too likely to be based on an out-of-context summary or an arrogance like that of an American complaining about being unable to get a hamburger on a gluten-free bun in Paris. I have started to explain my reaction once or twice, but never got around to finishing the explanation – which is a good thing, because recently I discovered that A. E. Housman had made a much more graceful explanation than anything I had drafted.

These days, A. E. Housman is not a fashionable poet. He wrote largely in ballad-like quatrains, often affecting a kind of pastoralism, neither of which fits into modern poetic conventions, and he is usually discredited as not being a profound thinker. Yet, despite this reputation, he retains a certain popularity, and school anthologies often include his poems “To an Athlete Dying Young” or “With rue my heart is laden.”

Housman’s tone is often melancholy, if not world-weary. Apparently, he was well-aware of the fact, since he wrote explaining his own defense of his tone. His defense appears in the poem known by its first line as, “Terence, this is stupid stuff” – Terence being the imaginary shepherd who wrote Housman’s poems.

The poem opens with Terence’s friends comically complaining about his music, and pleading with him to play something happier. Terence replies that he enjoys a drunken carouse himself, when “the world seemed none so bad, / And I myself a sterling lad.” But the trouble is, when he wakes in the morning, he realizes that “the tale was all a lie” and all that is left was to return to the daily routine.

Under the circumstances, although:

the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would.

Hearing his melancholy, Terence goes on to say, his friends might find something to sustain them when the inevitable time comes when they are troubled in their own lives.

To reinforce his point, Terence makes a comparison with Mithridates, the great enemy of Rome in Caesar’s day. According to legend, to avoid assassination, Mithridates gradually accustomed himself to various poisons, until he had developed an immunity to them, confounding his enemies as he swallowed the arsenic and strychnine they slipped him without any effect.

Houseman does not belabor the point, ending simply with, “I tell the tale that I heard told, / Mithridates, he died old.” However, the implication is clear enough: Just as Mithridates developed an immunity to poison by taking small doses, by first facing the gloomy parts of life second-hand through art, people better prepare themselves for the inevitable time when they face similar experiences in their lives.

In other words, unlike those who favor trigger warnings, Housman does not believe that art is simply for enjoyment, or – I might add – to please members of the audience by reinforcing their viewpoint. In fact, to do so is to present a false view of the world. Instead, the purpose of art in Housman’s view is to prepare people for life, and that means dealing with subjects that are sometimes distasteful and uncomfortable.

Housman does not mention catharsis, the purging of emotion and the sense of renewal that comes from tragedy. However, the concept fits well with what he does say, suggesting yet again that what matters is the interaction between the audience and art.

Reading Housman, I realized that those who favor trigger warnings are like the people for whom music is what Frank Zappa called “aural wallpaper” – something in the background of their lives that reinforced their existing conceptions and left them unchallenged. But for me (and, I suspect, Housman), the point of art is not to reinforce prejudice, but to experience life from the artist’s perspective. The perspective may be troubling, and in the end you may reject it as false or offensive, but, even then, your experience does you more good than simply hearing what you prefer to hear.

Not that there is anything wrong with light entertainment. Most of us, if we are being honest, prefer light entertainment at least some of the time. But the limitation of trigger warnings is that they imply that is all there is to art, and that is an over-simplification, and as much a lie as Terence’s joys of drinking.

Yes, experiencing art that is challenging can be unpleasant, and sometimes more than you can endure. Yet I can’t help remembering that, more than any other generation of soldiers, those who fought in World War I resorted to poems and fiction as a way to endure the realities of war. In the same way, I recall a man in a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic who survived a storm by singing Stan Rogers’ “The Mary Ellen Carter,” with its refrain of “Rise Again!” over and over. I did much the same in the first days after being widowed. And when I think of such examples, I suspect that advocating trigger warnings, far from sparing people pain, in the long run deprives the traumatized and risks doing them serious damage, like parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated.

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Discovering a young artist near the start of their career is always exciting. Jaimie Katerina Nole came to my attention when Haisla carver John Wilson directed me to her Facebook page and “The Pregnant Frog Woman” one recent Saturday afternoon, and I knew at once that I wanted a copy. In fact, I wanted one so strongly that I settled for an ordinary limited edition – all that was left — even though I almost never buy anything except originals, artist’s proofs, or remarques.

I have only met Nole once for about five minutes, but she struck me as a young woman of determination. If I have her story straight, she was enrolled in the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art a few years ago, but withdrew when she became pregnant. She is apparently planning to return to the school this autumn, but, in the meanwhile, “The Pregnant Frog Woman” seems proof that she is making the most of her situation. When she posted the print, she quickly received over 3,800 Likes on Facebook, and decided to make a print of it.

“The Pregnant Frog Woman” is a striking piece for at least two reasons. For one thing, human forms remain uncommon in the modern revival of Northwest Coast art, female forms even rarer, and pregnant forms almost unheard of. So, although the kneeling posture is a conventional one, Nole quickly makes it her own simply by her choice of subject matter. The use of green and black is much less unusual, but enough to reinforce the impression of originality.

However, what is most striking about the print is Nole’s skill with the traditional forms. The use of ovoids for the shoulder, elbow, hip and knee joints is traditional enough, but those in the print are a variety of shapes, their contents echoing and contrasting with each other. The curve of the knee and breast parallel each other as well, and so does the knee and the buttock. Within the breast, the u-shapes also mimic the overall shape, suggesting the successive swelling of the breast during pregnancy.

Several other features of the design also emphasize the signs of pregancy. For instance, thick, black formlines frame the green uterus and fetus above and below it. Even more interestingly, the formline – which varies far more than usual in beginner’s work – is at its thickest around the breast and the bottom of the hip joint, between which the newborn will eventually pass. Not only is pregnancy the subject, but the design continually calls attentions to the symptoms of pregnancy in subtle ways.

A trace of eeriness is added by the signs of a supernatural creature, such as the long slender fingers and the hand with three digits, all differing little except in size from the visible foot. Since the head is barely sketched in, the focus is on the mysticism of pregnancy – the feeling, you can easily imagine, that the figure herself is feeling as she holds her hand over swelling stomach, perhaps to feel signs of movement.

Nole tells me that she is planning a series of prints of different aspects of motherhood, and, despite being a childless widower, at some point in the series, I would like an original. If “The Pregnant Frog Woman” is any indication, Nole not only understands the tradition in which she works, but has the unusual power of embedding emotion within its strict conventions. If her subsequent designs can match this one, Nole is an artist who seems likely to make her mark.

Jaimie-Nole

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Last summer, I contributed to Haida Raid 3: Save Our Waters, an environmentalist animation. I couldn’t resist, given the cause and the perk of a print: Jaalen Edenshaw’s “K’alt’side K’aa” (“Laughing Crow”).

Edenshaw is the brother of Gwaii Edenshaw, one of the foremost jewelers on the coast. Much of his work is on poles and other community art, with only an occasional piece making it as far south to Vancouver. So I was happy when, a few weeks after the Haida Raid fundraiser closed, I received this small sample of his work. Many people assume that Haida art has no humor, and I’m glad to have a piece that proves otherwise.

What particularly interests me about this piece is its resemblance to some of the figures on the ring I bought from Gwaii Edenshaw five years ago. I had asked Gwaii to do a ring illustrating the story about how Raven turned the crows black. Not wanting to share their salmon with Raven, the crows put crumbs in the dozing Ravens’ mouth, then try to convince him that he already eaten when he wakes up. But Raven is not deceived, and throws the crows into the fire, singeing them so that their feathers turn from white to black.

bruce-ring3

On the ring, Gwaii depicts the crows in the middle of sprinkling Raven with crumbs of salmon, rolling them into his mouth and along his back. The crow figures resemble the ones on Jaalen’s print, and I mean to ask him which came first the next time I see him.

Meanwhile, the print is a good example of how I can enjoy a hundred dollar piece as much as a ten thousand dollar one. With a print run of 270, the print is unlikely ever to be valuable, but I admire it for its unusual posture, as well as the lines indicating movement on both sides of the figure. Compared to most prints, it is a cartoon – but that, I suspect, is exactly what was intended.

laughing-crow

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Several years ago, Haisla carver Nathan Wilson was one of the standouts at the Freda Diesing School graduation exhibit. Unlike most of his classmates, he was already regularly selling masks to the galleries. They were well-finished, but, I thought them lacking in individuality. However, his masks also suggested that very soon he would manage that individuality – and I when I saw “ Tagwa” on Facebook, I knew immediately that he had. I immediately offered to buy it, nipping in ahead of several other buyers.

The only catch was that Wilson had done the panel for his YVR scholarship. That meant I would have to wait a year to take it home, while it hung in the Vancouver airport for a year. Then, ominously, when the year was up, Wilson said he wanted to make some adjustments to it.

Knowing something about carvers and perfectionism, I joked that the octopus would probably come back as a grizzly bear. Mercifully, on closer examination, Wilson decided to restrict himself to minor corrections, and the panel arrived at my front door fourteen months after I had reserved it.

“Tagwa” is an abstract piece, with the shape distorted to find the shape of the panel. In fact, the body of the octopus is upside down, with its beak at center left. The abstraction is heightened by the body, which – fittingly – resembles a loose sack of random shapes in which only the beak and eye are visible.

At first, only a few tentacles are visible, the others, presumably, being hidden by the octopus’ body. However, if you look closely, you start to realize that what at first appears to be the formlines for the body could actually be another two tentacles. You also realize that although four tentacle tips are visible in the right half of the panel, they twist in such a way that more tentacles may be present. Stare long enough, and the exact count becomes difficult to decide, because the tentacles seem to start twisting as you try to make sense of them.

The tentacles, they contrast with the body by having a contemporary design. Instead of the ovoids that many artists would have used to indicate the tentacle’s suckers, Wilson contents himself with plain ovals. Instead of a formline design, the tentacles themselves form the center of interest, twining and showing their two sides, one painted red and the other left unpainted cedar. If you look closely at the picture, you can see that the wood mimics the rubbery texture of an octopus’ skin.

This contrast between the two sides of the panel is heightened by its colors. The body reverses the traditional formline colors, making red the primary color and black the secondary one. In addition, as often happens in Haisla works, blue is added as a background color.

The result is a piece that immediately catches the eyes. It now hangs prominently in the center of one wall of my living room, where it catches my eye several times a day, and where in the last nine months it has become one of my favorites pieces. Wilson himself, I am happy to say, has continued to show his own sense of style in his more recent works, consistently proving himself the artist I always suspected he was.
nw

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Many artists in their mid-Sixties are past their best work. Their art no longer engages them, and what made them original has grown stale, expressed only in minor works. Then there is Tahltan/Tlingit artist Dempsey Bob, whose face grows boyish with enthusiasm when he discusses his work, and who can be heard fretting about how to find time to realize all his plans. At sixty-six, Bob is as passionate as ever, and, as the work in “North,” his current show at the Equinox Gallery demonstrates in every piece, still at the height of his powers.

Part of the reason that Bob not only survives as an artist but flourishes after nearly five decades is his belief in constant development. Bob’s roots may be in First Nations traditions, but, firm in the conviction that these roots are one of the great artistic traditions of the world, he has not hesitated to explore in other directions as well. In particular, in the last decade, he has been involved in cultural exchanges with Maori artists, visiting New Zealand over half a dozen times to study a culture with striking similarities to his own. Somehow, his latest show seems to incorporate all such influences, at times suggesting everything from a Mayan glyph to European traditions while remaining an extension of his roots.

IMG_20140607_142325

Another sign of Bob’s diversity is that perhaps a quarter of the show is cast bronze. These bronzes are the product of a period that Bob went through 5-10 years ago in which he concentrated almost entirely on works in metal, doing little in wood except for large scale commissions in which he was apparently more supervisor than artist. Varying from a modern coffee table to traditional masks, Bob’s works in metal would seem major accomplishments in any other context. However, hung next to his works in wood, they seem lesser works. The lines that seem so effortless in cedar appear rigid and slightly forced in metal. Just as importantly, the relative uniformity of the metal seems strangely bare compared to the grain of the wood.

bronze1

frog-table

Bob’s wood pieces are impressive for several reasons. To start with, Bob leaves himself no place to hide, rarely using paint beyond a pair of black pupils here or red lips there. One or two pieces are even left unpainted altogether. The rare time that he uses larger regions of colors, as in the “Raven and the Box of Daylight” bentwood box, the result is all the more striking for its rarity. Mostly, Bob has only the wood to work with, and he rises to the challenge consistently with finishing details that rarely reveal the touch of a chisel or a vice.

beaver

bentwood-box

Another noticeable feature of Bob’s work is that his carving is deep and intricate – deeper and more intricate than just about any First Nations carver of the last seventy years. These characteristics are a sign of mastery, because, as often as not, they mean working against the grain, risking cracking or breakages in order to achieve the desired shape. Yet the taking of such pains is worth it, because the depths add another dimension to the carving, casting shadows that become as much a part of the sculpture as the wood itself, even though they are always changing with positioning or the time of the day. They share these features with his metal sculptures, of course, but their softer edges complement the wood in a way that the sharper edges of bronze never manage.

Bob’s subject matter is often traditional. But although he sometimes produces a relatively ordinary work as “Eagle Leader,” more often he takes a traditional shape to produce his own twist. His spirit catcher is several times larger than any that a shaman could ever have used on a sick bed. So, too, is his helmet, which is perhaps the standout of the show.

eagle-leader

helmet

Similarly, his transformation mask might be called post-modern. Like a traditional transformation mask, it is a mask within a mask. However, unlike a traditional mask, it is not fully rounded, but has one side that is flat so that it can be easily hung on the wall. Its shape amounts to a comment on the difference between a mask that is considered a work of art and one that a dancer would wear in the traditional winter ceremonies. After all, when the function has changed, why not change the shape? Bob’s answer is, perhaps, quietly humorous in its practicality, but also strikingly original.

transformation-mask
A photographer enthused to me at the opening of “North” that the way that Bob has made international influences his own while retaining ties to his origins would be instantly recognized by his ancestors of two centuries ago. He would have to explain that poles were rarer today than then, but once they understood that the stories were now depicted instead on sculptures hung on the walls, they would approve his work without reservation.

I understood immediately what he meant. Although the renaissance of First Nations art in the Pacific Northwest has come long distances in the last seventy years, only a handful of artists reach the complexity and absorption of other influences found in the nineteenth century. However, “North” proves, once and for all, that Bob is unquestionably one of those handful. In fact, in his mastery and extension of tradition, Bob just might be the greatest carver that the renaissance has produced.

Seeing two dozen of Bob’s works together is exhausting and inspiring at the same time. I am unlikely to ever afford his work, but knowing it exists is a comfort all the same – an overwhelming a reminder of what great art can be that leaves me wondering why we ever settle for anything less.

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On April 25, I flew to Terrace for the sixth time to attend the graduation exhibit at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Carving. As usual, the graduation was also a gathering of alumni, and the longhouse where the show is held was so heavy with the smell of varathane as students worked to the last minute to finish their pieces that leaning into one of the display cases could leave you dazed and dizzy.

longhouse

This year’s show was stronger than last year’s on two accounts. To start with, the first year class included at least two promsing artists. Kyle Tallio exhibited a hawk mask, whose elongated shape and and striking painting made it a standout:

kyle-tallio

Another first-year standout was Reuben Mack, who continue the tradition of his extended family (including Latham, Kyle, and Lyle) with a portrait mask that showed both a steady hand on the paint brush and an attention to detail that should serve him well if he chooses an artistic career:

reuben-mack

Yet another promising first-year was Kirsten McKay, this year’s winner of the Mature Student Award, who placed a Chilkat weaving design on a spoon with pleasing results:

kirsten-mckay-chilkat-spoon

Even more importantly, the work of several second year students demonstrated that they had put the last year to good use. Cyril Bennett-Nabess showed a notable improvement in both his painting and carving, displaying several masks, including this traditionally-shaped bear mask:

cyril-bennett-nabess-becoming-a-bear

Similarly, Roberta Quock showed the same high standards that made her an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award in 2013:

roberta-quock-thunderbird

The work of two students in particular stood out form. Lyle Quock, who stood out in his first year, showed an originality of design and color selection in the masks he displayed this year:

lyle-quock-moon-mask

lyle-quock

But if I had to choose a single artist as a standout, it would be Loretta Quock-Sort, an Honorable Mention for the 2013 Mature Student Award. Quock-Sort’s female portrait mask was one of the more original pieces in the show:

loretta-quock-sort-mask

loretta-quock-sort-leather-robe

But it was her work in fabric that stood out, including a leather robe with mask in their own display case, and the black and red robe that she wore for the graduation itself.

loretta-quock-sort

The show opens at The Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver at the end of May, possibly with a few works that were not ready in April. If you want to see what the next generation of First Nations artists are doing, you won’t find a better place to satisfy your curiosity and aesthetic senses.

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