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Archive for the ‘Luke Marston’ Category

Luke Marston is a Coast Salish artist whose work is much in demand. In the summer of 2009, he and his brother John had an exhibit at the Inuit Gallery that must have set records for the prices obtained by artists in their mid-careers. Since then, neither has sustained those prices, but each continues to be much sought-after (Luke, for the record, is the brother who does the astonishing masks and historical recreations). Never having had the money when I saw one of his works that I admired, I was glad to pick up a remarque of his print “Family.”

Released for his wedding, according to Elaine Monds of The Alcheringa Gallery, “Family” (I suppose) shows Marston’s eagle crest embracing the wolf crest of his bride. Because of its thick, dark lines, the wolf is the figure that stands out the most – the wing and leg of the eagle are noticeable only after your eye discerns the wolf, and the rest of the eagle only comes later.

However, as the eye takes in the complete design, the wolf – contrary to the ferocity you might expect – seems smaller and more fragile than the eagle, clinging for protection to the eagle. By contrast, the eagle seems more rigid and less emotional or vulnerable.

Given the occasion, it is tempting to speculate on whether this contrast suggests Marston’s view of his personality and his wife, or perhaps his feeling of protectiveness for her, although I have no idea whether that is true. However, the interpretation gains credibility when you consider that the eagle’s wing is raised as though sheltering the wolf, and that the wolf almost seems to be burrowing beneath it.

There is also a formalized sexuality in the design, with the eagle’s hock joint pointing towards the wolf’s mid-section suggesting a penis, although of course birds lack external sex organs. Similarly, while the interior design elements in the wolf’s thigh serve the practical purpose of reducing the thickness of the leg, the ovoid is almost positioned high enough to suggest an x-ray view of the uterus. This ovoid is echoed in the ovoid formed by the eagle’s claws, which are point at the wolf’s thigh.

Another contrast between the two figures is that the thinner lines of the eagle’s head and beak (and, to a lesser extent, the tail feathers) seem more realistically rendered than the rest of the design. Again, armchair psychology is tempting; in choosing to depict his crest in two different design styles, is Marston suggesting that he sees himself as belonging to two worlds or traditions? Or is the depiction merely a matter of design, created simply to balance the thicker lines of the rest of the design?

You can see comparable figures in most Northwest Coast traditions without having to search very far. However, despite that obvious fact, in some ways, this design hardly registers to my eye as a Northwest Coast design at all.

For one thing, few Northwest Coast designs leave the top and bottom of the design space undecorated except for a few simple lines.

Even more importantly, the all-black design and the sweeping curves remind me strongly of the work of Aubrey Beardsley. In fact, it is the curves that first draw my eye: The long line from the top of the eagle’s wing to the bottom of the design, the coat hanger-like design element at the top, and the curling line of the wolf’s tail. These three lines enclose most of the rest of the design in an off-centered oval, positioning the gaze of the viewer without being perfectly symmetrical itself. Supporting them are mirror-image angles such as those on the two heads, or the inversion of the two legs that is emphasized by the ovoid element in each. All these things give “Family” something approaching an Art Nouveau sensibility.

Last summer, I saw “Family” for sale without any additions. However, Marston has also chosen to release a number of the prints with a remarque in pencil in the blank space at the bottom of the design. The remarque shown here is frog. I have asked whether the frog is a family crest, but have not received any reply from Marston.

However, given the metamorphis in the frog’s life cycle and its amphibious habits, frogs are generally seen as figures of power throughout the Northwest Coast cultures. This background makes the frog a fitting symbol of a life transition such as marriage. But whether Marston himself chose it for that reason is uncertain; since other remarques include a raven or eagle, perhaps he doesn’t.

But whichever way you look at “Family,” it remains an elegant piece from an artist with an accomplished sense of design. I might even say that its simplicity and small size – about fifteen by forty centimeters – makes it more accessible than some of Marston’s larger pieces. I still hope to afford a major work by Marston one day, but, meanwhile, “Family” is a small sample of what he can do.

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Mostly, I know the work of Salish artists John and Luke Marston from pictures. These days, they seem to be working largely on commissions, and such smaller work as they do is displayed mostly in galleries in Victoria. The few I’ve seen have been mostly at the Inuit Gallery, which has now taken the next step of hosting a show with some two dozen pieces entitled “Honouring the Ancient Ones.” I attended the opening of the show last Saturday, and I was appreciative of the skill I saw there, but a little taken aback by the prices.

The two Marstons are often spoken of in the same breath. Even if they weren’t brothers, that would be inevitable, because both begin in with the Salish tradition, often base works on historical artifacts, and show considerable promise as carvers. However, if you see “Honouring the Ancient Ones,” you are unlikely ever to mistake them again.

Assuming the show is any indication, John Marston favors boxes and rattles.

jm-box

jm-rattle

When he does a mask, it is generally on a stand.

jm-mask

Throughout his work, he shows a strong sense of line – something that loosely resembles the formlines of the northern first nations on the coast, but which follows few of its rules with any consistency.

jm-formline

The result is a body of work that is hauntingly familiar, yet fresh at the same time.

By contrast, Luke Marston seems interested in carving household goods, such as bowls and ladles.

lm-bowl

lm-ladle

He is also the maker of the only two bracelets in the show, although his metalwork skills seem less advanced that his woodcarving ones.

lm-bracelet

He also seems more interested in masks than his brother, including a transformation mask and a contemporary piece called “First Woman,” whose depiction of a woman’s face in the flames was for me the highlight of the show.

lm-first-woman

None of his work shows the same focus on line that his brother’s does, but – at least in this exhibit – he seems more interested in the historical roots of his art, citing several times in the catalog that various works are his rendering of a museum piece.

Both artists are worthy of admiration, but I know that the prices they are charging are causing some concern among Northwest Coast artists and galleries. There is an unspoken understanding that artists’ prices reflect their experience, and many people feel that neither Marston has paid enough dues to justify their prices. When I say that Luke Marston’s “First Woman” mask is in the same price range as master and elder carver Norman Tait, you will understand what I am talking about. I even know one gallery that decided against trying to host a show of the Marston’s work because its curators decided it could not afford the initial outlay of buying such expensive pieces.

On the one hand, this criticism has some justification. John and Luke Marston are outstanding carvers, but they are still relatively young and, for all their promise, they are still perfecting their skills. Not that anything is wrong with their finishing skills, you understand, but when you compare them to those of someone like Ron Telek or Stan Bevan, you can see that Marstons still have things to learn. For example, neither shows a strong sense of the grain, and their matching of abalone inlays while adequate, is not always as close as it should be.

On the other hand, the Marstons can obviously receive the prices they are asking. Despite the recession, sales were brisk at the opening. As I write, three days into the show, two-thirds of the works on display have sold, including some of the most expensive.

Judging from the crowd, I suspect that one reason they can charge as they do is that they are breakout artists – ones whose appeal extends beyond the usual Northwest Coast collectors and enthusiasts and appeal to the local mainstream art crowd. You might wonder if their work will increase in value as quickly as other artists’ given its initially high prices, but what are they supposed to do – deliberately undercharge what the market will bear? That seems too much to ask of anyone.

In the end, I decided the question of their pricing was secondary (especially since most of their work was beyond my bank balance). The way the Marstons are developing, the issue is likely to become moot in another five to ten years as their skill is generally recognized.

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