Posts Tagged ‘Coast Salish’

As a current director of the YVR Art Foundation, I first saw the work of Coast Salish artist Cody LeCoy as part of his successful scholarship applications in 2011 and 2012. I was immediately struck by his impressionistic technique and surreal composition, as well as the thickness of the acrylic paint on his canvases. Buying one of his works was only a matter of waiting for the right canvas. The canvas turned out to be “Ridicule Mask,” which was hanging in the Lattimer Gallery.

Like the potlatch, the ridicule mask is one of the unique customs of many First Nations in the Pacific Northwest. When someone of high rank behaved improperly – for instance, by destroying goods in a display of pride and greed instead of distributing them – a ridicule mask would be displayed until they made retribution.

Often, ridicule masks show a half-ruined face, referring to a story of one chieftain who, in destroying oolichan grease – a form of wealth – in an effort to outdo rivals, badly burned himself. His injuries are considered a just punishment for his boastfulness and pride.

Modern first nations artists have often used the concept of the ridicule mask creatively. For example, several years ago in the Continuum exhibit at the Bill Reid Gallery, Mike Dangeli presented a ridicule mask whose subject was the treatment of the first nations by modern society.

However, LeCoy’s painting is more personal. Asked to comment on the painting, he emailed back that the painting was about “the idea of wealth coming from what is given away rather than what is hoarded. The main theme of the painting is awareness of one’s self to know the value of gifting, and to recognize thoughts and behaviors within – hopefully before others catch on – where greed can lurk around the corner.”

In other words, LeCoy makes the ridicule mask a private warning to avoid greed, instead of the traditional public shaming – a re-interpretation, perhaps, that highlights one of the differences between traditional and modern ways of life.

The split between ideal and incorrect behavior is seen throughout “Ridicule Mask.” On the left are unbalanced faces, divided vertically and horizontally. But where on a traditional mask, the division would be clearly defined, on canvas LeCoy can have them overlap, which makes their relationship even more psychologically ominous. In the middle are images of traditional ceremonies – specifically, the potlatch – which was the traditional mechanism for spreading wealth among the community and preventing hoarding by offering status and respect in return for generosity. The canvas ends on the right with an old growth tree that towers above the other figures, contrasting with the ridicule mask faces on the left and suggesting that the sharing of talents is what is natural.

These figures are reinforced by the mixed palette, which LeCoy describes as a mixture of “stagnancy and rejuvenation.” The stagnant colors, he writes, “represent the decay of something that is hoarded for one’s self. The original vitality of something (an object, an idea) goes stale if [it is only used] as a means of personal gain.” By contrast, the images of the potlatch are more brightly colored, and sky beside the tree is blue. However, in all sections of the painting, the colors are mixed, the bright colors highlighting the stagnant colors on the left, and darker colors creeping in between the color images in the rest of the canvas, as though to suggest that the two opposites are never far apart and, perhaps, only exist in relation to each other.

At twenty-three, LeCoy is still a young artist. For this reason, it is possible to see the influences of other artists in his work. Several people with whom I have discussed “Ridicule Mask” suggest that its surrealism is the influence of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, LeCoy’s mentor for his YVR Art Foundation Scholarships. Similarly, the tree on the right is strongly reminiscent of Emily Carr.

Yet if such influences are visible, they are combined with elements that are LeCoy’s own. The crowded canvas is saved from chaos by solid composition; mentally subtract the raven mask in the top center, for example, and the entire painting falls apart. Similarly, in the brush work with its mixture of colors and thickness of paint, LeCoy creates a sense of restlessness and variety that gives his work an originality that proves that he is an artist to watch.

I look forward to watching LeCoy’s talents develop. I suspect that, while “Ridicule Mask” is the first painting of his that I’ve bought, it won’t be the last.

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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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