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Posts Tagged ‘Cody LeCoy’

Cody LeCoy is a young First Nations painter. Mentored by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, he favors a surrealist style that has given him some mainstream success. However, to my eye, his painting are at their most original when he applies surrealism to First Nations tradition, as he does in “Mouse Woman, Keeper of the Neighborhood.”

Mouse Woman is a figure that has young artists today are fascinated by. The truth is, however, is that little is known about her, not even how she was depicted traditionally. What is known is that she is the helper of heroes, often meeting them on their journeys as a mouse in need of assistance, then re-appearing as a woman of high status who gives them shelter for the night and wise advice to take away with them. I think of her as the opposite of Raven, a guardian of the community against his individualism, a force for order as opposed to his chaos, and a preserver where Raven is both a creator and destroyer.

“Keeper of the Neighborhood” was hanging at a pizza parlor when I saw a picture of it in LeCoy’s mail out. I immediately arranged to meet him there, and arrived early, sitting next to the picture while I waited, as though to ward off any other potential buyers. I came home with it wrapped in garbage bags, during a break in the rain, getting it indoors again just before the rain returned again.

According to my interpretation, the painting is based on the idea that Mouse Woman continues to watch over the community of the First Nations, even when most of it is living in the city. In the upper left corner, she appears in her mouse form, looking fierce with hunger, and nervous. Her other form dominates the painting, her dual nature suggested by the difference between her right and left eye and her narrow, bony fingers, which holds a sphere up where she can view it more clearly – a sign that she is still a protector of her world.

Technically, what I admire about the painting is that it is painted on plywood. The color of the plywood is blended into the painting so well that, until I saw it up close, I had no idea that the brown of her face was actually the bare plywood. The rest of the painting is full of bristly strokes that appear layered from a distance, and add a sense of restlessness that fits into the concept of a guardian from the past uneasily continuing to carry out her responsibilities in a very different cultural setting than the one where she began – one that is perhaps potentially dangerous, and where she does not naturally belong, except that her people have moved there.

Just as in”Ridicule Mask,” the other painting by LeCoy that hangs on my wall, “Mouse Woman, Keeper of the Neighborhood” takes a traditional theme, and applies it to a modern setting, using a non-traditional style. I admit to a weakness for surrealism, but in these paintings, LeCoy produces a sense of tension and restlessness all his own. I look forward to watching where his talent takes him next.Mousewoman.JPG

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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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