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Archive for the ‘Bill Reid’ Category

This afternoon, I heard Tlingit artist Nicholas Galanin speak at the Bill Reid Gallery. His talk was my first prolonged exposure to concept art applied to Northwest Coast art. I came away stimulated, but not particularly sympathetic to the effort.

Galanin is the latest of several generations of artists, and has done some jewelry in the traditional style. However, at least for the time being, he is not especially interested in traditional art or culture. He talked about traditional art as being confined by the stereotypes imposed by a romantic view of first nations, and – rather tellingly – could not tell where he obtained a traditional song he used in a video, even though in coast cultures, rights in songs and their performance can be important pieces of property. [Note: Both Galanin and Sonny Assu tell me that it was not the traditional song whose source Galanin didn’t know, but a hiphop song that was part of the same work. See the comments below. I apologize for the error].

Instead, Galanin is more interested in exploring the First Nations as another ethnic minority within the dominant culture – in particular, how coastal images are bastardized and exploited by cheap imitations made in Asia for the tourist trade in the Northwest Coast. He discussed, for example, a series of masks he made out of pages of the Bible, talking about how he found it appropriate that the holy book of Christians, who suppressed shamanism, should be converted into a shaman mask. Galanin also talked other paper masks he had made and how they were masks by a first nations person that showed no signs of first nations culture.

Other projects he discussed involved embedding tourist-trade masks in a wall covered with wallpaper that depicted idealized pictures of 19th century life and another in which the same type of masks were covered in Chinoserie. In a pair of videos, he had a traditional dancer (or an approximation of one) and a modern dancer moving to the same traditional song. In yet another series of work, he gave his version of the highly idealized photos of Edward Curtis: naked women with masks added in a graphics editor.

Meanwhile, ten meters from the podium where he stood was his contribution to the Bill Reid Gallery’s Continuum show: A version of Bill Reid’s “Raven and First Men” rendered by a chainsaw. Galanin was seeing his version of the famous sculpture for the first time, because he had outsourced the work – as he does much of his work.

The outsourcing is a commentary on commercialism, but I also had the sense that for Galanin what matters is not the actual work so much as the concept. Apparently, he sees his role as that of impresario, rather than as an artist who necessarily creates works with his own hand.

Having been a grad student in an English department of a major university, I am tolerably well-versed in such approaches to art. Nor do I find anything in Galanin’s social commentary with which I disagree.

But I wonder if I am missing something, because I have never found this kind of concept art very compelling.

For one thing, it seems to have little room for something that is central to my own appreciation of art – the enjoyment of craft, of sheer artistic excellence. Part of this lack may be that it does not delve deeply into tradition, so it has no standards to judge skill by. But the major reason for the lack seems to be that, when you are making a comment, craft becomes unimportant or perhaps a distraction.

Moreover, when you are commenting on commercialism, too much craft is probably out of place. If anything, your message is stronger if an object shows a lack of craft.

This situation helps create another problem: most concept art, including Galanin’s, is like a symphony of a single note. If your ideal is the “well-made object” of Bill Reid’s aesthetics, then viewers can return to it many times, and even discover something new after the first viewing. In comparison, concept art seems simple and to offer few reasons to return to it. Once you have grasped the message – which is often simple enough that you can reduce it to a single sentence, or at least a rather short paragraph – nothing is left to appreciate. Concept art seems to be unambiguous and unsubtle by nature, and, consequently, not very interesting.

In this respect, it is interesting to compare Galanin’s chainsaw Bill Reid knockoff with Mike Dangeli’s ridicule mask, which is also in the Continuum show. Where Galanin’s “Raven and the First Immigrants” seems one-dimensional, Dangeli has reached into his cultural history to bring an old concept into the future: just as the ridicule masks of the past were public announcements of a wrong, so Dangeli’s is a declaration of the wrongs suffered from the first nations. Dangeli’s mask is every bit as social or political as Galanin’s sculpture, but where Galanin’s sculpture seems facile, Dangeli’s mask is ambiguous and complex. And I doubt it is a coincidence that Dangeli is throughly involved in preserving and reviving his culture while Galanin sounds like a typical deracinated intellectual.

But such issues are a matter of taste. Regardless of what I think of Galanin’s work, I have to admit that the very fact that it takes the form that it does illustrates the diversity of Northwest Coast art and proves it a living tradition. And that by itself, I suspect, is something of value.

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At times, I’m not sure whether I’m a romantic or a skeptic. On the one hand, I love popular legends and mythology. On the other hand, I love efforts at debunking. Was Richard III the victim of propaganda after his death? Did Benjamin Franklin pass information to the British? Was Bonnie Prince Charlie a semi-literate sot who guzzled his way through the 1745 Rebellion? Topics like this always fascinate me, even when they fail to convince. For that reason, I find Maria Tippett’s Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian endlessly fascinating, even when it seems dubious or exaggerated.

If you don’t live in Canada, particularly in British Columbia, you might not know why Bill Reid is a subject for debunking. Briefly, Bill Reid was a jeweler and a sculptor working in the Northwest Coast tradition. He is generally considered the chief figure in the renaissance of Northwest Coast art, and the major Canadian artist of the late 20th Century, with his work on the back of the Canadian $20 bill and one of his sculptures on display at the Canadian embassy in Washington. Ten years after his death, he remains so admired that if an artist, gallery owner or collector of Northwest Coast art refers to “Bill” with no surname, they are referring to Bill Reid — a touching and clear indication of his ongoing importance.

Tippett clearly admires Reid’s work, and its fusion of European and First Nations sensibilities. However, she also states that Reid was bipolar, and – on very little evidence – that he was sexually promiscuous and adulterous. More importantly, she suggests that it is wrong to see him as the sole instigator of the Northwest Coast art revival, and that, especially in the last years of his life, he carefully crafted his own image as an Indian to further his career (hence the title).

These claims were greeted with outrage by a number of reviewers when the book was first published four years ago; a review in the Georgia Straight, for example, referred to the book’s “slash-and-burn” approach to its subject. In the end, though, it is surprising how little her claims actually matter. Regardless of their truth or falsehood, even Tippett cannot deny Reid’s importance as an artist.

Personally, however, I wish that Tippett had balanced her claims more, and, in places, elaborated on them. A man struggling with mixed European and First Nations ancestry in the mid-20th century, and later with Parkinson’s disease has every right to depression and moodiness. As for her claims about his sex life, they are based to a large extent on hearsay, and, not really the concern of anyone except Reid and his wives. I suppose the claims have to be there for the sake of completeness, but they have little to do with his art, which is almost completely void of the sexual elements in 19th Century Northwest Coast art.

Similarly, it is true that other artists were keeping the tradition alive when Bill Reid began his career. However, to imply as Tippett seems to that the tradition would have its present popularity without him seems absurd. True, artists like Ellen Neel and Mungo Martin were active in the 1950s, but to suggest that they could have sparked the current interest without Reid seems questionable; he developed into a first-rate talent who influenced dozens, and Neel and Martin were second-rate at best. Might-have-beens are endless, but, without Reid, the tradition would probably not be nearly as popular as it is today. Even artists of the excellence of Robert Davidson and Norman Tait might not have been able to promote it, not because they are any less talented than Reid – they’re not – but because they lack Reid’s flare for self-promotion.

But self-promotion, of course, is something that artists are not supposed to engage in, according to many outsiders. Apparently, they are somehow truer to their craft if they live in poverty. And Tippett seems to share this self-righteous puritanism in full measure – if anything, she seems more shocked that Reid should cleverly promote himself than that he should sleep around. She reacts with a cynical naivety, using anti-Indian statements by Reid from earlier years to create the impression that his political activism in his last active years was a calculated marketing decision. She does not consider the possibility that marketing can be based on honesty, much less than Reid’s adoption of a First Nations identity may have been a resolution to his life-long conflict about who he was.

Still, better a debunking book that lacks generosity than a hagiography that ignores its subjects’ faults. Tippett could argue her case better, but, even if her interpretation is faulty she at least presents a portrayal of a human being – and one whose faults, real or imagined, don’t change his importance in the least.

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I confess: I’m an enthusiast for Northwest Coast art, yet I have no trace whatsoever of First Nations ancestry in me. This fact doesn’t bother me particularly; I like what I like. But, as I festoon every square centimeter of wall space with art, one or two people have wondered if I’m guilty of cultural appropriation. Can someone with my background really appreciate Northwest Coast art?

My first response is flippant: If not, then a lot of talented artists will have to take day jobs.

But the response deserves a more serious answer, if only because it keeps coming up. So, in short, I think that I have no trouble whatsoever finding ties to the school of art I like best.

I should say at the beginning that the appeal that Northwest Coast art has for me has nothing to do with primitivism. I despise primitivism as condescending and labored, and want nothing to do with it. If I felt otherwise, then my interest in Northwest Coast art would probably extend to the Woodlands and Inuit schools in North America, and to the Maori of New Zealand. But I have only a mild interest in any of those. I feel that I don’t know enough to properly appreciate them.

Besides, I don’t believe in the noble savage myth, and wouldn’t apply it to the Northwest Coast cultures if I did. They are far too complex and sophisticated.

In fact, Northwest Coast art today is not an isolated, entirely self-referential art form at all. Northwest Coast art as we have known it in the last sixty years or so is – for all its historical roots – a thoroughly modern art form. If it draws on the myths and cultures of the coastal peoples for inspiration and design, it relies just as much on European art for technique and reference. Not only are artists experimenting with new forms such as glass, but often they are working with a full awareness of not only the local school of art but also other schools from around the world.

For example, when the young artist Alano Edzerza can do a print called “Think Like a Raven” that he describes as a Northwest Coast version of Rodin’s Thinker, you know that he and his peers are not working in an isolated tradition. For all their local roots, they are also thoroughly internationalist. In this sense, it seems perfectly appropriate that the central figure in the Northwest Coast renaissance should be Bill Reid, a man who was not only of mixed European and Haida descent, but who also studied the latest jewelry techniques in Europe and applied them to the local school of art. When a school is so internationalist, then few people should have any trouble finding a connection to it.

Even were that not so, I could still appreciate Northwest Coast works for their sense of craft. By this, I do not just mean the finishing details on a Norman Tait mask or the sense of line in a Susan Point graphic design. Nor do I just mean that Northwest Coast artists today can choose between the classicism of working with traditional forms and the romanticism of innovation, although this situation means that Northwest Coast art is one of the most varied and flexible schools of modern art.

I am also referring to the whole geometric basis of the art, with the repetition of simple forms adding up to the creation of more complex ones. This structure seems to straddle the line between representational and semi-abstract art, falling to one side or the other according to the preferences or the whims of the artist. How each artist goes about creating complex shapes from the simple ones is an inexhaustible study, and one that exists at least to some extent outside the specific tradition. In many ways, it is a matter of pure technique.

However, the greatest appeal of Northwest Coast art for me is very simple. I am sure that I would appreciate the school even more if I were Haida or Tsimshian or Salish. Then, perhaps, I would have the cultural resonances and perhaps familial familiarity to understand more completely what I am seeing when I look at a piece of Northwest Coast art.

However, I do count myself lucky that I have the next best thing. My family may have been on the northwest coast for less than a hundred years, but I have lived all my life here. If my knowledge of the cultural references is learned from books, the natural references are second nature to me.

True, I live in a urban area, but that area is Vancouver, where modern industrial life and the wilds are so close together that you can go from downtown into wilderness in less than an hour unless it happens to be rush hour. Being in such proximity, the wild is always intruding on the city, and you don’t need to be a hiker or cross-country skier to find it.

Even though my day job is at a computer in my house, I have still confronted a raven eye to eye and knowing that another sentient being was watching me. From that experience, I have no trouble understanding why the raven is a trickster in local mythology. I have been deep enough into the northern rainforest that I have felt the disquieting silence that explains the stories about the Dzunuk’wa. I have seen orcas in the water, and my sense of spring is partly involved with the seals going upriver chasing the eulachon, just as the end of summer is marked by the salmon runs (or, increasingly these days, their failure). The landscape that the art talks about is the one that I live in, and, while as a city-dweller I see far less of it than the people living here three centuries ago did, enough remains for me to identify with it to a degree.

By contrast, I can feel far less for the art of the Celtic and Germanic peoples that likely make up my actual ancestry. I don’t live in the land that produces it.

No doubt for some people, these connections are still not enough to give me the right to appreciate Northwest Coast art. They might even say that I appreciate it for the wrong reasons. Yet, with six hundred years dividing me from the Italian renaissance, the same might be said of my appreciation of Michelangelo or Raphael. Art speaks to its viewers in many ways, and, in the end, what matters is that it speaks at all – not what dialect it uses.

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This weekend, I scouted the Northwest Coast galleries around the south end of the Granville Bridge. Here are my impressions:

  • Eagle Spirit Gallery: Located on the edge of Granville Island, this gallery is one of the pleasanter viewing areas that I’ve seen, with lots of natural light and indirect sun. It seems aimed at the corporate or public buyer rather than the individual, with many larger-than-life plaques, masks, and sculptures. Its selection includes some of Robert Davidson’s recent sculptures (which you don’t see much of), as well as works by Lyle Campbell, but, for me, Francis Horne, Sr.’s “Spirit Raven” was the only really exceptional piece. Even browsing casually, I saw a surprising lack of finishing detail on some pieces, including some by artists whose work is usually more polished. In general, the selection seemed a little too safe for my taste.
  • Edzerza Gallery: I discovered this gallery by accident, occupying the space that used to be occupied by the Bentbox Gallery, a block from Granville Island. Owned by the young artist Alano Edzerza, it displays mostly his prints and jewelry, but includes selected pieces from up and coming artists. For a young artist, running your own gallery seems a daring move, but, I’m proof that it pays off, since it means that I noticed Edzerza’s work for the first time, and he’s now on my list of artists whose work I want to buy. While I was there, I also met another artist whose work I admire. The selection is relatively small, but I am sure that I’ll be coming back, both to support the venture and to buy.
  • Latimer Gallery: A block from the Edzerza Gallery, the Latimer features moderately priced limited edition prints, masks, and jewelry I remember this gallery as being more touristy than it was today, so either my memory is faulty or else its stock has gone upscale a little. I had no trouble finding some small treasures, including some old Bill Reid prints, and some very affordable crayon sketches by Beau Dick. I don’t think I’ll be a frequent visitor at the Latimer Gallery, but I will be dropping by now and then to check what they have.
  • Douglas Reynolds Gallery: Located in gallery row a block up from the south end of the bridge, this shop is aimed at the high end of the market. Besides the inevitable Robert Davidson and Susan Point prints, it includes a number of masks by Beau Dick, and at least two striking wall plaques by Don Yeomans. It also includes a selection of gold and silver bracelets, rings, and earrings, including a few small pieces by Gwaai Edenshaw. The stock seemed a little safe to me, but was adventurous enough here and there to make me want to return occasionally.
  • There are still Northwest Coast galleries I haven’t visited in Vancouver, but these four, together with the ones I visited last week in Gastown, are some of the better known ones. Besides finding which galleries seemed right for my own art buying, visiting a number of them has helped me to understand the market a bit better, including such as who are the established and upcoming artists, and what are the going prices for each artists’ work. This knowledge makes my visits well worth the effort, especially since you can easily see a number of galleries in an afternoon without doing much travelling.

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A banner, I’ve found, is hard to hang by itself. Several weeks after buying the Bill Reid raven banner that is one of my daily delights, I limped back to the Bill Reid Gallery to buy the wolf banner in the same series.

Since an injury had delayed me picking it up, I had been tormenting myself with visions of collectors discovering the banners and snapping them up, but, happily my fears were unrealized. Had I wall enough and cash, I could also have bought the frog, Mouse Woman, Dogfish Woman, and Beaver banners that were my alternate choices.

However, I am pleased to have the wolf banner, because it is one of the most playful in the set of 13 banners. As Reid himself points out in the text of All the Gallant Beasts and Monsters, the book from which the banner designs were taken, wolves must have been a fantasy figure in traditional Haida culture, since they are not found on the islands. He suggests they must have been semi-mythical, the epitome of ferocity and hunger, with their teeth always sunk in somebody’s belly.

It is this fantasy figure that Reid presents on the banner. The wolf’s twisted posture and the arrangement of the feet suggest that it stalking low to the ground. The head, which is as large as the body is dominated by the teeth, which are three-quarters the length of the head, with outsized nostrils and ears giving it a look of ferocity, especially with all these elements being red. The waving tail, also as large as the body, also helps to suggest intent, furious motion.

The most traditional element in the banner is the head, and even there, the design elements are designed to suggest a roundness of form – a kind of nod to realism. By contrast, only the back hip-joints in the body are classically designed. The length of the body, the feet are almost sketch-like in comparison, consisting of red ribs and black fur. As with the raven banner, in which the body is almost neglected in comparison to the body and the wings, in this banner Reid is focusing on the key aspects of the figure. Even the claws are not emphasized in any way, perhaps because it is the wolf’s hunger that he is most interested in.

All Northwest coast art has the habit of distorting figures to the surface, whether that surface is a ring, a box, or a spindle. Designing for the printed page or banner, Reid has no need to warp the design, but he does so anyway. His wolf twists asymmetrically, leaving much of the left side of the space blank – a suggestion, perhaps, that the wolf is stalking and trying to make itself less visible. One rear foot is stretched out behind suggesting that the wolf is moving low to the ground. At the front, though, the figure is so twisted that one foot is unseen, hidden by the head. Overall, the contortion of the wolf suggests a cat more than any canine – a reminder that this is a fantasy, but one whose blurring of natural categories adds to the menace.

Unlike the raven, the wolf banner has little sign of naturalism. With its modernly asymmetrical posture and the use of red to emphasize the wolvish elements, this is an animal that has been designed rather than observed. You sense right away that this wolf is the sort you have nightmares about. It’s a second cousin to the one in “Peter and the Wolf” and Tolkien’s wargs, the kind you imagine chasing sleds across the frozen Russian steppes in the hopes of snapping up a passenger.

At the same time, the depiction is so exaggerated that there is a kind of black humor to this wolf. From both the design and his remarks, I suspect Reid enjoyed both the menace and the humor. The result is an ambiguous design that is both these things at once.

Head Closeup

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Since I bought the Bill Reid banner last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about living with art. I pass the banner several dozen times a day, and, at just under two by one meters with a powerful design, it constantly catches the eye.

My first conclusion about living with art is that it’s not a possessive thing – at least, not for me. I don’t gleefully exclaim to myself “Mine!” when I see it, or even the more proper, “Ours!” Nor do I think that I’ve made a good investment, or how much the banner might increase in value over the years, because I have absolutely no intention of selling it.

So far as I can tell, I would get the same pleasure if I was undertaking an extended stay in a hotel room that included the banner, or if it was simply on loan. It’s being around a work of art that is important to me, not who owns it.

My chief reaction is a feeling of being privileged to see the banner every day. Having my aesthetic appreciation stirred several times a day is an intense feeling. It relaxes me and leaves me content in a way that very few other things do. Great art (by which I mean art that is skillfully done and more than just giving people what they think they want, not simply art made by someone that consensus classifies as a great artist) has a purity of intent that contrasts strongly with the everyday world. Like learning, it’s above the petty corruptions and compromises that we usually just accept without questioning. It has a sustaining quality that arbitrary, constant-changing fashion can never have. Its excellence is the best of us, and I am quickly becoming convinced that we are better for living with such art. Or, at least, I am.

Another benefit of living with art is that you get a chance to see how an artist works. When you see art in a gallery or in a book, you rarely have time to pinpoint why you react the way you do. But when you see a piece every day, you start to appreciate it in much greater detail.

For instance, after a week of living with the banner, I now understand that Reid was a meticulous planner, and that his designs not only frequently have a geometric pattern in them (such as triangles whose corners consist of similar shapes or a certain number of objects such as feathers), but also are constantly playing symmetry against asymmetry – a contrast that seems utterly fitting for an artist who is at once working in a tradition and with modern concepts of design. For years, I’ve been spell-bound by Bill Reid’s work, but until now I never noticed these characteristics of his work.

Of course, I don’t claim that one piece teaches me everything about his work, or that I have discovered everything about this particular work – especially not in seven days. But I know more about his work than I did, and now I understand more about his style and his design sense, as well as that of other artists in the same tradition. By living with the piece, I know a little more than I have previously done, and I look forward to learning more.

Living with art, I’ve decided, is one of the great civilized pleasures of the world, like an unexpectedly fine beer or wine or discovering a superb restaurant. It’s also a pleasure that I’ve mostly overlooked for a number of years and that I plan to pursue from now on as much as a limited budget allows.

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For many people, Bill Reid is the epitome of Northwest Coast art. The reputation is both deserved, given the quality and variety of his work and unfair, given the number of artists in the same tradition who are equally worthy of acclaim. But regardless of how you view his reputation, Reid has a strong claim to being the major Canadian artist of the late twentieth century, with one of his pieces both on display at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D. C. and on the back of the Canadian twenty dollar bill. And, like any admirer of Northwest art, for a long time, I’ve lusted to have one of his works but been unable to afford one – until now.

Even then, I only did so by getting into an area that the collectors haven’t discovered yet. I bought a canvas raven banner whose design is an expansion of the illustrations that Reid did for All the Gallant Beasts and Monsters, which was published in 1991. The banner was part of one of two complete sets of banners from the personal collection of Martine Reid, his widow, and was sold through the recently-opened Bill Reid Gallery in downtown Vancouver, so its provenance is unquestionable. In fact, I’ve left my email address with the gallery so that Martine Reid can give me more details about the banner.

The last stages of Reid’s development as an artist could be called his post-Haida era, in which Reid, while obviously basing his work on tradition, began incorporating more modern or personal elements into his work. The banner fits very clearly into this period.

While the ovoids and wings feathers are in the Northwest tradition, the torso, the foot at the bottom of the tail and head feathers are something else entirely. Similarly, while the twisting of the entire figure as though it is turning away from the viewer seems in keeping with the distortion of figures to fit a particular shape in classic works, Reid handles the distortion with high imagination, inverting shapes on one wing on the other, and presenting some shapes in full on one wing, but only hinting at them in another. It is as though Reid is inventing a new form of perspective that comes from neither Northwest nor modern art, although obviously drawing on both.

Raven Banner

Reid’s design is equally playful when it comes to symmetry, seeming to abandon it at first glance, but really playing some complex games with it. The body of the raven is defined by the triangle formed by the ovoids on the wings and at the base of the tail, an unusual shape in traditional art. At first, too, the body seems asymmetrical, with the left wing showing three flight feathers and the right wing four – but then you notice that the right wing’s four feathers matches the four toes on the foot and the neck feathers, and forms another triangle whose angles are an inversion of the first triangle.

Then, in contrast to this complexity, there’s the simplicity of the head, with its economical lines and the heavy beak that suggests both the classic depictions of the raven and their actual appearance.

Head Closeup

It’s a complex work, and one that could only come after decades of development, with clean lines that stand out all the more because the design is black on white.

I don’t know if I got a bargain or overpaid, or whether the purchase will prove a good investment. The price was acceptable to me, and, since I bought the work because I admired it, I don’t care if its value increases over time. But the work shows all the mastery of Reid’s last period, and I admire it hugely.

The only trouble is, I’ve hung it in our hallway, and the rest of the hallway cries out for a matching banner. So, I suspect this won’t be the only Reid banner I’ll be buying this year. But if I can get one that intrigues me as much as this one, I’ll be extremely well satisfied.

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