Archive for the ‘Latimer Gallery’ Category

Recently, a gallery owner said to me, “Your collection of Northwest Coast Art has some really unusual pieces in it. After a moment’s thought, I replied, “Why would I want pieces I could find anywhere?” I’m not buying tourist junk, and most artists are at their most interesting when they are doing something outside of their normal range. Certainly, that is one reason why I bought Kwakwaka’wakw artist Steve Smith’s “Raven Mask.”

Smith’s work is regularly on sale at the Lattimer and Coastal Peoples Galleries in Vancouver. Most of his work has two characteristics: first, it is painted with intricate geometric shapes, primarily in black,green, and red, and, second, it has a wide varieties of forms – everything from boxes and vases to canvases, baseball caps, leather cuffs and Munnies. It’s a highly distinctive style, one identifiable from a distance, and I’ve enjoyed it for some years without being quite moved to buy, although I figured it was only a matter of time before I found the right piece.

I found the right piece while attending the opening of the Lattimer Gallery’s Annual Bentbox Charity Auction in November 2010. Having admired the boxes being auctioned, I was leaning on the main display case when I glimpsed “Raven Mask” out of the corner of my eye, and went over for a closer look. I looked several times again that evening, and a few times more on subsequent visits to the gallery, until I bought it a few weeks later.

Perhaps because I remember black and white television and photographs from my early childhood, I often find monochromatic work more dramatic than colored work, especially when in shadows. But even without this personal preference, Smith’s “Raven Mask” is striking among his more colorful other works. Even the black is more faded than on his other works, and the white is closer to a dirty silver color. And instead of Smith’s usual geometric shapes, the piece is simply painted with a few basic shapes. It could almost be a survivor from the 19th century, except that it is not a functional mask.

Not only that, but it seems a survivor that has come through fire, singed so that it looks like charcoal or ash, and the paint has started to blister. So far, I have not been able to ask Smith why he departed so far from his usual color palette, but to me the piece seems a reminder of the art that was burned as unacceptably pagan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the same time, its appearance of being lightly damaged suggests the artistic tradition of the coast today – damaged, yet still powerful. Extending the metaphor even further, you might say that the bundled cedar and the feathers are a literal grafting of new media and techniques on to the old.

However you view it, it remains an arresting piece, especially in darkness. As I type, it is a few meters away on a tea tray, pointed so that it catches my attention when I glance over my left shoulder. I have to be deep in the torments of writing before it fails to capture my attention and make my glance linger for a few moments.

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Last week when I was in the Lattimer Gallery, I received my copy of the book for the 2010 Charity Bentwood Boxes. It’s a small but well-designed book, and it reminded me that I hadn’t blogged about the box I bought in the auction.

2010 was the fourth year of the auction, with the proceeds going to Vancouver Aboriginal Health. The concept is simple: James Michels makes and donates the boxes, which are decorated by Northwest Coast artists, and the boxes are sold in a silent auction. In 2010, $10,850 was raised – more than double the amount raised the year before.

Over the last couple of years, the decorating of the boxes has become increasingly competitive as artists try to outdo each with their concepts. In 2010, for example, Landon Gunn added copper moon faces to his box, and Jing painted his in a Chilkat design. Steve Smith made his box a rattle. Even more extravagantly, Ian Reid (Nusi) crowded his with Tibetan pray flags and images of the Buddha, while Rod Smith chopped up his box and reassembled it. Perhaps the most ingenious box was Clinton Work’s “The Shop Thief,” a little man with the box for a body and the lid for a hat surrounded by the tools he had stolen – a theme that proved especially popular with the artists. If anything, the competition to be original promises to be even fiercer next year, with some artists already planning their designs for 2011.

I bid on several boxes, but, as I expected, the bidding soon got out of hand (even if it was for a charity). In the end, I was pleased to bring home “Hawk,” by Haida artist Ernest Swanson, a traditional piece that many people overlooked.

Part of the reason “Hawk” was overlooked may have been that it was on the bottom shelf of the display case, so you had to get down on your hands and knees to see it properly. But a larger reason, I suspect, was that it was a traditional piece with none of the embellishments of the more extravagant designs. When I contacted him online, even Swanson sounded like he thought he should produced something more original.

For my part, I have no complaints. Although I own a number of contemporary Northwest Coast pieces, I appreciate a traditional piece, too. Moreover, despite the fact that Swanson is relatively young, he has a reputation for traditional design, and for several years he has been on my short list of artists whose work I wanted to buy some day. I was delighted to get a sample of his work for a reasonable price – a sentiment that may sound unsuitable to a charity event, but I would be less than honest if I didn’t state it.

Much of Swanson’s work seems to be jewelry, a medium in which he is rapidly reaching the stage where his prices are soon likely to take a big jump upwards. That makes “Hawk” a bit of an exception in his work.

Nonetheless, I appreciate the boldness of the design, which has relatively little variation in line thickness. At the same time, it manages to be a busy design, perhaps because of the relative lack of red as a secondary color – a design decision that is almost a necessity, since too much secondary red would be garish and overwhelming given the bright red lit.

I appreciate, too, how the fact that centering the face on corners makes the design seem abstract from most angles, with the pattern only becoming obvious as you turn the box.

“Hawk” is a piece that you have to study for a while to appreciate. It stands now on my dresser, holding spare keys (because I feel that such a practical a thing as a box should be used, so long as it is used respectfully), and I find that my appreciation has grown even greater over the months of seeing and using it.

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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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