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Posts Tagged ‘Continuum’

This afternoon, I heard Tlingit artist Nicholas Galanin speak at the Bill Reid Gallery. His talk was my first prolonged exposure to concept art applied to Northwest Coast art. I came away stimulated, but not particularly sympathetic to the effort.

Galanin is the latest of several generations of artists, and has done some jewelry in the traditional style. However, at least for the time being, he is not especially interested in traditional art or culture. He talked about traditional art as being confined by the stereotypes imposed by a romantic view of first nations, and – rather tellingly – could not tell where he obtained a traditional song he used in a video, even though in coast cultures, rights in songs and their performance can be important pieces of property. [Note: Both Galanin and Sonny Assu tell me that it was not the traditional song whose source Galanin didn’t know, but a hiphop song that was part of the same work. See the comments below. I apologize for the error].

Instead, Galanin is more interested in exploring the First Nations as another ethnic minority within the dominant culture – in particular, how coastal images are bastardized and exploited by cheap imitations made in Asia for the tourist trade in the Northwest Coast. He discussed, for example, a series of masks he made out of pages of the Bible, talking about how he found it appropriate that the holy book of Christians, who suppressed shamanism, should be converted into a shaman mask. Galanin also talked other paper masks he had made and how they were masks by a first nations person that showed no signs of first nations culture.

Other projects he discussed involved embedding tourist-trade masks in a wall covered with wallpaper that depicted idealized pictures of 19th century life and another in which the same type of masks were covered in Chinoserie. In a pair of videos, he had a traditional dancer (or an approximation of one) and a modern dancer moving to the same traditional song. In yet another series of work, he gave his version of the highly idealized photos of Edward Curtis: naked women with masks added in a graphics editor.

Meanwhile, ten meters from the podium where he stood was his contribution to the Bill Reid Gallery’s Continuum show: A version of Bill Reid’s “Raven and First Men” rendered by a chainsaw. Galanin was seeing his version of the famous sculpture for the first time, because he had outsourced the work – as he does much of his work.

The outsourcing is a commentary on commercialism, but I also had the sense that for Galanin what matters is not the actual work so much as the concept. Apparently, he sees his role as that of impresario, rather than as an artist who necessarily creates works with his own hand.

Having been a grad student in an English department of a major university, I am tolerably well-versed in such approaches to art. Nor do I find anything in Galanin’s social commentary with which I disagree.

But I wonder if I am missing something, because I have never found this kind of concept art very compelling.

For one thing, it seems to have little room for something that is central to my own appreciation of art – the enjoyment of craft, of sheer artistic excellence. Part of this lack may be that it does not delve deeply into tradition, so it has no standards to judge skill by. But the major reason for the lack seems to be that, when you are making a comment, craft becomes unimportant or perhaps a distraction.

Moreover, when you are commenting on commercialism, too much craft is probably out of place. If anything, your message is stronger if an object shows a lack of craft.

This situation helps create another problem: most concept art, including Galanin’s, is like a symphony of a single note. If your ideal is the “well-made object” of Bill Reid’s aesthetics, then viewers can return to it many times, and even discover something new after the first viewing. In comparison, concept art seems simple and to offer few reasons to return to it. Once you have grasped the message – which is often simple enough that you can reduce it to a single sentence, or at least a rather short paragraph – nothing is left to appreciate. Concept art seems to be unambiguous and unsubtle by nature, and, consequently, not very interesting.

In this respect, it is interesting to compare Galanin’s chainsaw Bill Reid knockoff with Mike Dangeli’s ridicule mask, which is also in the Continuum show. Where Galanin’s “Raven and the First Immigrants” seems one-dimensional, Dangeli has reached into his cultural history to bring an old concept into the future: just as the ridicule masks of the past were public announcements of a wrong, so Dangeli’s is a declaration of the wrongs suffered from the first nations. Dangeli’s mask is every bit as social or political as Galanin’s sculpture, but where Galanin’s sculpture seems facile, Dangeli’s mask is ambiguous and complex. And I doubt it is a coincidence that Dangeli is throughly involved in preserving and reviving his culture while Galanin sounds like a typical deracinated intellectual.

But such issues are a matter of taste. Regardless of what I think of Galanin’s work, I have to admit that the very fact that it takes the form that it does illustrates the diversity of Northwest Coast art and proves it a living tradition. And that by itself, I suspect, is something of value.

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The Bill Reid Gallery kicked off a series of talks about artists from its Continuum exhibit with a slide show by Michael Dangeli, a Nisga’a artist who has started to receive recognition in the last few years. The choice was lucky or inspired, because Dangeli is more articulate about his work than most artists, and has clearly thought carefully about what he is doing.

The Continuum show is supposed to be about the conflict between traditional and contemporary influences in Northwest Coast art. And, in fact, Dangeli was introduced in terms of this conflict. However, he immediately made clear that he rejects such a dichotomy in his own work. Calling his work “traditionally contemporary,” Dangeli made clear that he considers his work a continuity of the past, both an attempt to reclaim it and to expand and to adopt it.

One reason why Dangeli is comfortable with the paradox of living with opposites is that he sees the rest of his life in such terms. Nisga’a by birth, he has lived in the United States and Vancouver, far from his nation’s territory. Deeply interested in his cultural past, he is also aware that he is a modern urbanite in his day to day life. Spiritually inclined, he is also a veteran of two tours of duty abroad in the American military. With such tensions, those between the traditional and contemporary must seem like just one more.

Another reason that Dangeli can have the attitudes he does is probably the fact that he is actively involved in the cultural revival of his people – something that seems especially unusual for an urbanite. During his discussion, Dangeli talked of pieces of art being given as payment for services, and at potlatches, as well as important events such as a betrothal. He talked, too, of being groomed to take over a chieftainship, and of his hesitation about taking on an even larger chieftainship recently. He talked about his dancing, and of acquiring songs and dances and inventing new ones, and of exploring the distinctions between male and female powers and responsibility with his finacee.

Unlike many First Nations artists, Dangeli seems either fortunate enough or determined enough to have lived with a sense of tradition from an early age. Consequently, it is easier for him than many artists to see a continuity rather than an opposition.

This continuity seems to affect his art very strongly. He talked of preferring that his gallery pieces not have eyes that would make them danceable, and of his relief when he managed to buy back an early exception to this preference. He talked, too, of making one of the first stone masks for well over a century, and having it danced.

But the strongest evidence of his artistic continuity came at the end of his talked, when he uncovered three pieces of his work that are reserved for ceremonial purposes: The mask he bought back and modified with a pieced of Ainu cloth; the stone mask, and a frontlet worn by his fiancee. He explained that he generally kept them covered, and treated them as living spirits, requesting that people look them over a few at a time so as not to overwhelm them. It was unclear to me whether any power in the objects was innate or resided in the respect shown to them, but his attitude was curiously moving.

Even if you didn’t share his cultural background or beliefs, they were obviously alive for him – either never having died or after being carefully revived, or some combination of the two. Clearly, he had fought hard to make them meaningful to himself and those around him, and I believe that he has largely succeeded. At the very least, he demonstrated to the audience that his cultures were still ongoing and hadn’t stopped developing with the European conquest.

All this says nothing directly about his work, which ranges from the traditional to the modern, with a variety of color palettes and a frequent emphasis on collaborations with other artists – or “brothers,” as he called them.

I have liked what I’ve seen of Dangeli’s work in the past, and, by the time he had finished talking, I had a much clearer sense of why, and an increased interest in what he might do in the future. And, really, what more can you ask of an artist’s talk? With several dozen slides and intelligent commentary, Dangeli sets a high standard for the next speakers in the series to match.

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(Note: Because the staff was unsure which exhibits the artists had given permission to photograph, I was unable to take pictures)

When I go to an art gallery, I come prepared to be pleased. Just as when I go to a movie or go to a book, I generally arrive with few expectations. I try to practice the concept that I should understand a work in its own terms, and not through the filter of expectations that I bring with me. Over the years, I have found that this approach has allowed me to appreciate things that I might otherwise have dismissed.

I mention my perspective because I have to report, very much against my wishes, that the new exhibit at the Bill Reid Gallery, “Continuum: Vision and Creativity on the Northwest Coast” is a disappointment. The fact that it comes after the gallery’s first successful show that highlighted Bill Reid’s career, and shares space with the dazzling permanent collection of Reid’s jewelry only makes the show’s failure all the greater.

For the most part, the problem is not with the artists. True, a few of the artists chose to submit the physical equivalent of one-liners. For instance, Shawn Hunt’s “Trickster,” which shows Raven perched atop a can of clam chowder is amusing at first glance, with its reference to Andy Warhol’s famous silkscreen (and also an indication of how Bill Reid’s “Raven and First Men” has altered the traditional story in modern minds, since the recorded historical versions mention a different type of shell). But, on second glance, what the incongruity means remains elusive. It seems only a poke at the commercialization of Northwest Coast art in a way that has already been done before. Personally, given the design ability displayed in Hunt’s Raven, with the grinning faces as part of the body and wing, I would far rather see what he does with less derivative work, especially since he is a relatively new artist.

A similarly limited work is Moy Sutherland’s “The Negotiator.” Sutherland, whose work I have often admired elsewhere, is not the first artist to add First Nations politics into his work. But where Charles Heit (Ya’Ya) rarely lost sight of his art and his comments had an angry wit to them. Sutherland’s use of Canadian flags, five dollar bills, and a dangling carrot is simply angry. It can be reduced to a single short sentence: He is angry with the people negotiating land claims on behalf of his nation. Any work that can be reduced to fourteen words, I submit, is not art at all, regardless of whether I sympathize with the sentiment, as I do with Sutherland’s.

However, the majority of the work exhibit present an interesting variety. In contrast to Sutherland’s work, Mike Dangeli’s “’Redemption’ Ridicule Mask” presents a much more complex reaction to the situation of the First Nations, using an old tradition to comment on contemporary politics.

Similarly, Ian Reid creates a new effect by placing Chilkat patterns and colors on a raven mask. He did so, he explained as an acknowledgement of Tlingit and Tsimshian women who introduced the Chilkat patterns into Heiltsuk society. At a time when many First Nations people are descended from multiple nations or are half European in ethnicity, he said, this acknowledgement seems particularly appropriate. The juxtapostion of two different traditional media more than justified Reid’s motivation, resulting in an arresting and original effect.

Dan Wallace also placed Chilkat patterns in a new medium by engraving them on his silver bracelet, “Remembering our Royalty.” Like Reid, Wallace emphasizes the importance of looking back at history while reflecting on the current situation, and, like Reid, produces a new artistic effect as he does so.

Other pieces worth seeing included a traditional Tsimshian mask and a stop-action video of its carving by Phil Gray, Sonny Assu’s graffiti-like canvas with its reds and pinks and grays, Dean Hunt’s traditional-looking mask “Pk’vs: Wild Man of the Woods,” and Aaron Nelson-Moody’s red cedar and copper panel “Copper Man.” Nor should I forget to mention the wealth textile works, such as Marianne Nicolson’s “Tunic for a Noblewoman,” done in memory of her grandmother; Krista Point’s untitled Salish blanket; Teri Rofkar’s “Tlingit Robe,” and Carrie Anne Vanderhoop’s “Dream of Dragonflies.” Individually, all these works were well-worth lingering over and returning for second and third and fourth looks.

The problem is, while most of the works in the exhibit stand on their own merits, they seem to add up to nothing as an exhibit. Part of the problem may be that the show seems to have changed directions, starting as an exhibit of young artists but transforming into an exhibit with the theme of the tensions between the contemporary and the traditional and adding older, more established artists. But, for whatever reason, the result is a seeming random collection of artists.

For all the obvious skill of individual artists, there seems no particular reason why these particular artists were chosen. Any of four or five dozen other artists could have been swapped in instead, and the impression left by the exhibit as a whole would not be significantly changed (As if in confirmation of this statement, after I left the exhibit, I saw Andrew Dexel, the graffiti artist, at one of the Aboriginal Days booths outside the Vancouver art gallery).

Another problem is that, with only one work allowed per artist at the most (one bracelet was the work of three), you have trouble appreciating anyone’s work. A quarter of the artists, and four or five works apiece would help visitors to gauge each artists’ range. Given the number of newer artists in the exhibit, that sort of context would have been welcome.

As things are, the result is that seeing “Continuum” is not much different from seeing the latest work at a commercial gallery. In fact, I have seen larger shows at commercial galleries, as well as chances to meet the artists that did not include a request for donations at the door.

Nothing is really wrong with such a show – I guess. But the Bill Reid Gallery is not a commercial gallery, and is obviously struggling to be something more. Its difficulty is that it is still struggling to define what that something else might be. In “Continuum,” I suspect it temporarily lost its way in academic critical jargon and posturing (if the catalog is any judge).

I can only hope that, with its next show, the Bill Reid Gallery returns to the success of its first show. If it does, then I will be happy to report the fact. Meanwhile, so far as “Continuum” is concerned, “disappointment” is the mildest word that I can honestly choose.

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