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Archive for the ‘sculpture’ Category

As I go through Northwest Coast galleries and web sites, one of the things I am always looking for are miniatures masks – ones under about eight inches in height. We have several wall areas – mostly above doors – that are too small for anything else. Even more importantly, a miniature is a sign of a carvers’ skill. Yet I don’t see many worth buying, perhaps because miniatures tend to be either student pieces or ones designed for the tourist trade, and experienced carvers cannot charge enough for their time to produce many. As a result, I was especially pleased when I noticed that Ron Telek’s “Transformation Mask: Human to Eagle” had come back on to the market. It’s an unusually fine miniature that shows his customary skill and imagination.

How the mask came from Terrace to Vancouver and I picked it up at the South Terminal of the Vancouver airport (which was not, to my disappointment a foggy runway used by single prop planes like something out of Casablanca) doesn’t matter. Enough to say that it did, and I did, and the mask now resides at the busiest crossroads in the hallway of our townhouse.

What makes the mask so haunting is its ambiguity. Although a human is turning into an eagle, the dominant face is more of an eagle’s. From the left eye, whose socket is lined with abalone, a human shape with a bird’s head seems to diving. Or so it appears; if you look at how the spirit’s head and arms are arranged, you’ll notice that they suggest another beak. You have to wonder, too, if the shape is the departing human soul or, given the deepness of the eye socket, if the transformation is being achieved by the plucking out of an eye.

Then, if you look at the right eye, you’ll notice that it is bare wood. However, in the eye’s lower third, like a cataract, is a piece of leather with a small shape that resembles the one leaving the left eye. Does that mean that the transformation is all in the eye of the imagination and not literal? That the transformation, or the need for it is based on faulty vision and understanding? Or is it a supreme act of will?

Also, despite the title of the mask, what dominates is a largely bird-like face with a full beak and one taloned foot where its left ear should be. So who is transforming into what? Perhaps the transformation is of the human into the form of his helper spirit or true self. Certainly, the bird face seems serene, perhaps even amused to judge by the line of its mouth on the beak. It is the human spirit that seems in pain or exaltation. By contrast, the eagle seems more stoic and less affected by the transformation. Perhaps for the eagle’s nature, transformation is natural, and it is the human spirit that finds passing from one form to the other uncomfortable.

These ambiguities make for an asymmetrical design – something that is relatively common in Northwest Coast art, but which is part of the foundation of modern mainstream design. By showing elements of both, the mask increases its ambiguity even further. To a certain extent, the asymmetry is reduced by the long cedar braid on the right, but the mask remains, like the figure it represents, halfway between two different states.

In the end, you can say so little about the mask that the uncertainty adds to its fascination. The only thing that you can say for sure about the mask is that it is finished with Telek’s usual attention to detail.

I don’t know why the previous owner decided to sell the mask, but I’m glad he did. Unlike the previous owner, we don’t plan to let it out of our hands. We wonder, though, where we will find other miniatures to match its complexity.

telek-human-eagle

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After several months of down payments, we’ve added the first mask to our collection of Northwest Coast art: “Spirit Moon Mask” by Ron Joseph Telek.

Telek is a great original – perhaps the great original in Northwest Coast art today. Inspired, they say, by a car accident in which he was legally dead for a few minutes, his work is largely concerned with images of transformation and shamanism. While his work obviously comes out of the northern tradition in British Columbia, it breaks with the tradition as much as it keeps it.

His work is quirky, asymmetrical, and fully of little details, and often more than a little disturbing. I’d call it the carved or sculpted equivalent of a Gothic novel – a dark, romantic, and highly individualistic style. Others have called him the first surrealist of the Northwest Coast, and likened some of his more disturbing images to Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

His imagination alone would make him one of the top carvers and sculptors on the coast today, but Telek is also a painstaking craftsman, much like his uncle Norman Tait, whom he once studied under. Like Tait, Telek is a master of using the grain of the wood to enhance his subject matter.

The same is true when he turns to other materials – there is a walrus tusk he did a couple of years back languishing in a Vancouver gallery which is so eeriely beautiful that it had to be moved further away from another piece of ivory so as not to outshine it.

Another characteristic of Telek’s work is that, in contrast to what might almost seem his imaginative excess, his finishing details are always meticulous and restrained – you won’t find any tarting up of a mask with rings of unmatched abalone or endless cascades of horse hair in Telek’s work, the way you do in less talented artists. And you never do see paint, which other artists sometimes cake on to hide defects. Like Tait, if Telek adds a finishing detail, it’s for effect.

And if all this wasn’t enough, Telek’s imagination seems endless. Other artists may have periods in their development, in which work after work resembles each other, but Telek’s periods don’t seem to last for more than a piece or two before he moves on to something new. Possibly, this restlessness works against him in the galleries, where many buyers want something familiar, but, I prefer to think of it as one more sign of an inventive and agile mind.

“Spirit Moon Mask” is one of Telek’s smaller, tamer pieces, but it strikes an interesting balance between tradition and the west coast contemporary style of architecture. But the type of odd details that make his other work so lively are there. The wall-eye, the bit of abalone that could either be a nose-piercing or a wound, the strained-looking cheekbones, the arms of the spirit rising from the moon that look like tentacles, the spirit’s arched back and round-mouthed scream — for such a simple piece, the number of unusual touches crammed into the mask is overwhelming.

Since our townhouse is small, we had been thinking of limiting ourselves to one work by each artist who attracted our attention. But, already, we are talking about making an exception in Telek’s case. Perhaps, too, we’ll save for eight or nine months and buy one of his really big works, even if we have to rent the townhouse next door to display it properly. Frankly, we’re hooked.

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