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Posts Tagged ‘Dogfish Woman’

The Charles Edenshaw exhibit currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery is a rare opportunity to understand not only one of Canada’s greatest artists, but also his influence. The odds are against these two hundred pieces being shown together again any time soon, but, while they are together, they allow visitors to observe the elements of Edenshaw’s style, such as his growing awareness of negative space as part of the design. Just as importantly, the exhibit shows the importance of Edenshaw in the development of not only Bill Reid, but of the entire revival of Northwest Coast Art in the last sixty-five years.

This is an outcome that Charlie Edenshaw (as he was known during his lifetime until a more formal version of his name started being used as a sign of respect) could hardly imagine. We know little of his inner thoughts, but, as he started his day’s work with a prayer, preparing to hunch for hours over his latest work, he seems to have had little concern beyond making a living for his family. In fact, he once said that he was so tired of carving that in his next life he planned to avoid it altogether. When a descendant was one of the few of his generation not to experiment with art, he was widely believed to be Edenshaw’s reincarnation.

Bill Reid never hid the debt he owed to Edenshaw. I suspect, for example, that Reid’s love of deep carving may have come from seeing Edenshaw’s argillite carving, whose cutbacks are so deep that you can often stand to one side and see daylight on the other side. If you are know Reid’s work, you cannot spend ten minutes at the Edenshaw exhibit without being haunted by a sense of familiarity. Reid was not being the least bit humble in his comments about Edenshaw; he was only stating the truth about his own development.

Two exhibits make that influence especially clear. Near the start of the exhibit is Edenshaw’s famous sketch of Dogfish Woman – done, if I remember correctly, at the request of anthropologist Franz Boas. Although acknowledging that we no longer know the story of Dogfish Woman, Reid adapted the design many times in his career. Not only that, but dozens of other First Nations artists, both Haida and non-Haida, have copied the same basic pose and design in the last half century.

The second exhibit is in a display case of bracelets near the end of the exhibit. In the middle of the case are two bracelets, one by Edenshaw and one done by Reid in 1956. They are supposed to be of two different animals, but the use of negative space and even most of the features are identical – and Edenshaw’s has the strongest sense of line. Early in his career, Reid clearly not only studied Edenshaw, but, as developing artists often do, copied him almost exactly – just as dozens have studied and copied Reid since. The next time I go to the exhibit (which is so overwhelming as to be impossible to comprehend in a single visit), I mean to watch for other evidence of the influence.

Besides an appreciation for Edenshaw’s work by itself, the exhibit is important for understanding modern Northwest Coast Art. I do not think that I am detracting anything from Reid’s reputation to notice such signs of influence; one reason that Reid is so fascinating as an artist is that he began as a copyist, and the depths of his talent only blossomed fully thirty years later, in the last two decades of his life. To see what Reid owes to Edenshaw does nothing except to offer more insight into the process of his development.

Just as importantly, as a key figure in the Northwest Coast revival, Reid himself continues to influence dozens – possibly hundreds – of artists. Considering his debt to Edenshaw, it would not be too much to say that, without Edenshaw, the revival either would have been stunted, or else not happened at all.

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Last night, I was at the reception for Tahltan artist Alano Edzerza’s new exhibit, “Gift of the Raven.” The show features Edzerza’s work of the last six months. Also on display were a number of pieces by Morgan Green, a recent recipient of the YVR Art Foundation Scholarship and (as she may be tired of hearing) the daughter of Tsimshian master carver Henry Green.

The evening started with a performance of “Raven Steals the Light” by Victor Reece’s Big Sky Multi-Media Storytelling Society. The performance was held in the courtyard of the Waterfall Building, the complex in which the Edzerza Gallery is located. It featured a dancer with suitably nervous bird-like movements and a light mask with mirrors for eyes, and ended with him climbing to an overhead walkway to conclude the performance – all in all, a successful blending of the traditional and the contemporary.

Then, the crowd squeezed inside the gallery for the viewing.

The show did not include any new traditional style work by Edzerza. Otherwise, it was a good representation of the different strains in his work. My main problem was dodging the crowd and finding gaps in it that lasted long enough to snap a picture. Combined with the fact that some paintings were hung high, the result is pictures that are less than professional quality (to say the least), but should give some idea of what was on display.

In one corner of the front of the gallery was a collection of Edzerza’s glass boxes:

alano-glass-boxes1

Elsewhere, you could see some of his experiments with color, such as this collection of closeups of traditional formline designs done in the electric colors of pop-art on a back wall:

alano-colors

The same pop-art sensibility appeared in a couple of contemporary paintings of frogs, which were inspired, I am told, by a tattoo on a woman’s back:

alano-frog3

But the major works in the exhibit were the multi-panel ones, like this one that was hung near the ceiling, facing the door:

alano-orca-multi

Another orca design, a triptych, was hung just inside the door, and a triptych featuring ravens on the back wall. The raven triptych was especially dramatic, as one of its panel shows:

alano-eagle-triptych2

All these multi-panel works shared features that are characteristic of Edzerza’s work: A three-dimensional contemporary take on traditional Northwest Coast designs, an experiment with color in mainly grayscale designs, and a dramatic sense of movement that is enhanced by the separate canvases and draws your eyes from one to the next.

Morgan Green is not as an experienced an artist as Edzerza, but, in the last year, her work has matured quickly. Previously, the work by Green that I knew best were her leather cuffs and a somewhat over-ornate wolf helmet in the gallery, but the works I saw last night shows some other sides to her work, and an interest in different media that, if anything, is even greater than Edzerza’s.

Green’s works included a wall hanging and a variety of earth-colored ceramics inspired by a recent trip to Arizona and the First Nations work she saw there. A plate depicting Mouse Woman was particularly striking:

morgan-green-mouse-woman-plate

So far as I know, no historical depictions of Mouse Woman survive. But Green’s rendering seems a reasonable one, with features like the ears, the round eyes and the incisors providing the defining features that you would expect in a traditional design. At the same time, placing the design on grainy ceramic creates a pictograph-like effect, all the more so because the formline is hinted at more than fully realized.

Perhaps the most accomplished work by Green on display was a Dogfish Woman robe she had created for an elder. The design was fairly standard (that is to say, more or less a descendant of Charles Edenshaw’s sketch via Bill Reid), but the cutting of the design and the assembly of the robe made for a first rate piece of work. As Green was discussing it with some of the guests, one of them agreed to model it:

morgan-green-dogfish-woman-robe

The evening was a fund-raiser, with a quarter of all sales going to the Vancouver Foundation. How successful the evening was a fund-raiser, I didn’t ask. But from the perspective of spotlighting two promising young artists, no one could have asked for more. I came away from the evening with increased respect for both, and an even greater determination to watch and enjoy their future growth.

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