Posts Tagged ‘Kwakwaka’wakw’

Twenty-years ago, I happened to be in a gallery when a First Nations man was talking to the owner. He was selling copies of a relative’s work – his father, I believe he said. They were loosely rendered works in a style I had never seen before, and I was immediately intrigued. I bought two as birthday presents for my partner, although I had never heard of the artist, Henry Speck. Nor could I find any information about him aside from the fact that he was Kwakwaka’wakw. I concluded that he was a minor figure and that his relative had exaggerated his importance.

Last week, I finally learned more by visiting The Satellite Gallery’s small show, “Projections: The Paintings of Henry Speck, Udzi’stalis”. It turns out that Henry Speck was a Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief, fisherman, and artist. While he had been painting since the 1930s, his moment of greatest recognition came in 1964 when the New Design Gallery held an exhibition of his work – an exhibition that was almost unheard of for any First Nations artist at the time. Even Bill Reid, who could be scathingly scornful of anything non-Haida, acknowledged his work as “far beyond anything attempted before in Kwakiutl art” (although, strangely, Reid did not include Speck’s work in his seminal “Art of the Raven” exhibit in 1967).

In other words, Speck is one of the bridges between the decline in traditional First Nations culture and art in the early 1900s and the renaissance that began midway through the same century.

This current show hints more than once that Speck might be considered a modernist, and it is easy to see why. Surrealists and modern artists like Jackson Pollack have been fascinated by the masks and paintings of the Northwest Coast and their obvious sophistication, and have tried to give their impressions of what they saw – usually very poorly, since they had almost no understanding of the artistic traditions they were seeing.

To a degree, Speck’s work is equally impressionistic, obviously sketched in ink or paint, and without the close attention to exact lines and curves that you see in traditional artists today such as Richard Hunt. His work also has individual idiosyncrasies, such as using short parallel lines or rows of irregular circles to fill empty space that – so far as I know – have no antecedent in Kwakwaka’wakw art.

However, the difference between Speck and the mainstream surrealists and moderns is that Speck had at least some understanding of the traditions he was depicting. Consequently, while his art seems less disciplined than that of modern traditional artists, his work does not seem glaringly wrong or poorly-observed so much as individualistic. Like many recent First Nations artists, his work does not fall neatly into either the modern or traditionalist categories, but seems to contain elements of both.

The “Projections” show is disappointingly small, with no more than a dozen original pieces, none of which is larger than 16×20 inches. However, taking the lead from Bill Reid’s observation that Speck’s work seems unnaturally confined at these sizes, and would benefit from being much larger, “Projections” includes a large slide show based on the Speck collection at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary that partly compensates for the lack of originals. Not only was Reid quite right in his observation, but seeing Speck’s work on slides restores the often-faded colors of the originals.

Behind the screen for the slides is a loop of archival footage of Speck and his work. by modern standards, the film clips are often gratingly patronizing, as journalists try to adjust to the idea of a First Nations artist. Is it hard to work in the traditional art, they ask Speck, when as a modern man he can’t believe in what he is depicting, the way he might have a century ago? Does he see a conflict between his subject matter and his own Christianity? But Speck, although unassuming, is far from the naïve native that the journalists assume, and answers with more graciousness than his questioners had any right to expect.

“Projections” is a show that can be easily absorbed in seventy minutes, and I wish it was larger. Yet, even as it is, the show goes some ways towards to restoring Speck to the position he deserves in the history of local First Nations art. And, finally, I have the context for the copies I bought so many years ago.

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Recently, a gallery owner said to me, “Your collection of Northwest Coast Art has some really unusual pieces in it. After a moment’s thought, I replied, “Why would I want pieces I could find anywhere?” I’m not buying tourist junk, and most artists are at their most interesting when they are doing something outside of their normal range. Certainly, that is one reason why I bought Kwakwaka’wakw artist Steve Smith’s “Raven Mask.”

Smith’s work is regularly on sale at the Lattimer and Coastal Peoples Galleries in Vancouver. Most of his work has two characteristics: first, it is painted with intricate geometric shapes, primarily in black,green, and red, and, second, it has a wide varieties of forms – everything from boxes and vases to canvases, baseball caps, leather cuffs and Munnies. It’s a highly distinctive style, one identifiable from a distance, and I’ve enjoyed it for some years without being quite moved to buy, although I figured it was only a matter of time before I found the right piece.

I found the right piece while attending the opening of the Lattimer Gallery’s Annual Bentbox Charity Auction in November 2010. Having admired the boxes being auctioned, I was leaning on the main display case when I glimpsed “Raven Mask” out of the corner of my eye, and went over for a closer look. I looked several times again that evening, and a few times more on subsequent visits to the gallery, until I bought it a few weeks later.

Perhaps because I remember black and white television and photographs from my early childhood, I often find monochromatic work more dramatic than colored work, especially when in shadows. But even without this personal preference, Smith’s “Raven Mask” is striking among his more colorful other works. Even the black is more faded than on his other works, and the white is closer to a dirty silver color. And instead of Smith’s usual geometric shapes, the piece is simply painted with a few basic shapes. It could almost be a survivor from the 19th century, except that it is not a functional mask.

Not only that, but it seems a survivor that has come through fire, singed so that it looks like charcoal or ash, and the paint has started to blister. So far, I have not been able to ask Smith why he departed so far from his usual color palette, but to me the piece seems a reminder of the art that was burned as unacceptably pagan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the same time, its appearance of being lightly damaged suggests the artistic tradition of the coast today – damaged, yet still powerful. Extending the metaphor even further, you might say that the bundled cedar and the feathers are a literal grafting of new media and techniques on to the old.

However you view it, it remains an arresting piece, especially in darkness. As I type, it is a few meters away on a tea tray, pointed so that it catches my attention when I glance over my left shoulder. I have to be deep in the torments of writing before it fails to capture my attention and make my glance linger for a few moments.

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Kwakwaka’wakw artist Rande Cooke has been on my short list of Northwest Coast artists for a couple of years. I knew I wanted one of his works, and it was only a matter of time before I found the right one. When I saw an artist’s proof of “The Poet” at the Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria, I knew I had found the right piece, because it fit so well into my emotional landscape.

You see, “The Poet” is a private edition of twenty prints in honor of Joan Rodgers, the wife of print expert Vincent Rickard, who died on May 23, 2010, at the age of 57. The title takes its name from the fact that Radgers wrote several volumes of poetry (although according to Elaine Monds of the Alcheringa Gallery, did not publish them).

I have met neither Rodgers nor Rickard, but, by the ugliest of coincidence, my wife died on July 5, 2010, aged 55. The synchronicity is not exact, but close enough I responded immediately to it.

The print shows Rodgers kneeling in the middle with two plants below her to represent her love of gardening or creativity (another similarity with my wife). Above her is the raven, with his wings enclosing her. As a being able to travel freely between the mundane and supernatural worlds, the raven is an appropriate psychopomp, or escort of the newly dead into the afterlife.

The surrounding black frame is broken, suggesting the suddenness of Rodger’s death and the disruption that it leaves behind. Another broken circle is suggested by the positioning of green in the design. Another indication that “The Poet” is a memorial piece is suggested by the positioning of the raven’s mouth to suggest a frown.

All of which I can thoroughly relate to just now.

Even so, I would not have bought if the design was not engaging in its own right. It has a fluidity – like all of Cooke’s work that I have seen – that turns the semi-abstract traditional forms into pure abstraction. Caught by the flow of the lines, the viewer’s eye has trouble focusing on the individual forms – until, suddenly, have traveled the diameter of the design, the eye moves into the middle and the forms suddenly come into focus.

I am struck, too, by the use of the pale green as the third color in the design. Green is a common enough color in Kwakwaka’wakw design, but usually it is much darker. Nor does it generally overlay the bolder black and red lines, as it does with the plants in “The Poet.” Here, its sparseness makes it seem almost fragile in comparison to the other colors in the design, and its presence in both the plants and the raven’s wing and face suggests a connection – although one fragmented and incomplete – between the states of life and death. This suggestion is reinforced by the fact that the black decorations on the raven’s wings, just below the patches of green, seem vaguely plant-like.

As an artists’ proof of such a small edition, my copy of “The Poet” should be extremely collectible – an exception to my contention that most prints should not be bought as an investment. However, what strikes me is not the investment potential (which would never lead me to purchase a print), but the subdued dignity it gives to its subject – a kind of refinement that seems highly suited as a memorial to the dead.

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After six months of layaway payments, today we finally brought home our Beau Dick Bukwus mask from the Douglas Reynolds Gallery. Bukwus, the wild man of the woods, is second only to Tsonokwa among Dick’s favorite subjects, but this goblin-like rendering is by far my favorite among his treatments of the subject.

The mask is several years old, but was kept for a while by Douglas Reynolds, who put it back in the gallery only because he had limited room and other masks by Dick that were personal gifts. This bit of history alone would be an endorsement of the work, if my own taste wasn’t enough. In terms of craft, it is close to a unique piece, using a technique that Dick has used in less than half a dozen masks.

This technique is to overlay the wood with leather, using a layer of cloth to create wrinkles on the face, then moistening the leather so it dries cracked and with a broken surface. The result is a close approximation of a man who has been living rough, and whose face is pocked by cuts and sores and the lines of hard usage. In other words, it is perfect for the Bukwus.

(Whether another face is carved on the mask, hidden by the leather, I don’t know. But, suddenly, it occurs to me to wonder, although I can never know without destroying the mask).

Another unusual piece of technique is that the eye holes are drilled deep, through nearly three inches of wood, and rimmed with copper that makes them come alive when the light captures them.

Even more interestingly, the nose is a piece of copper, as though the Bukwus has ripped off his own nose, and found a crude replacement. The sinuses, which are exposed by the lack of a true nose, are stuffed with cedar shavings, just (I am told) as a corpse’s would once have been among the Kwakwaka’wakw. Is the Bukwus dead? Or has he been left for dead? Or is he simply dead to his family and past? Could he be some collector of the dead?

You can take your pick among the possibilities, but all of them are potentially ominous. Add a manic grin with an under-bite, pointed ears, eyebrows that are as long as the hair on top of the head, and a red-black color that suggests a layer of filth and open sores, and the result is an intensely eerie bit of the supernatural, even if you know nothing about the Bukwus.

In fact, it is so intense that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Dick had his own manic delight in his creation and laughed as he finished it. It is close to being over the top, yet stops short of being so, creating an ambiguous figure that, the longer you stare, the less certain you are whether you should be uneasy or laughing yourself.

This ambiguity makes the mask one that should not be hung in the bed room – and definitely not where you can see it when you wake up. Instead, we hung it at the top of the stairs leading up from our front door. If we are ever woken by a scream on the stairs, we will know that somebody broke in and got their first look at Dick’s creation. It’s a magnificent piece, but not something you want to take you by surprise in the dark.

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Northwest Coast art is semi-abstract to begin with, and continues to have a strong tradition. For these reasons, abstract or post-modern work in the field is rare. Perhaps the best-known movements in those directions come from Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ Haida Manga or Andrew Dexel (Enpaauk)’s graffiti-inspired canvases. However, long before either of these efforts, Doug Cranmer was making his own movements towards abstraction or post-modernism. In the mid-1970s, he did a series of abstract paintings, several of which were turned into limited edition prints in 2005, and some of which have been released to a handful of galleries in the last month. Recently, we were privileged to take home a print of “Ravens in Nest,” which is compositionally the most interesting of the recently released prints.

At first, the idea of abstracts coming from someone like Doug Cranmer seems unlikely. After all , Cranmer comes from the first generation of artists in the Northwest Coast Renaissance, have learned carving from Mungo Martin. Later, he worked with Bill Reid on poles and houses that were commissioned by the University of British Columbia.

And in the mid-Seventies, who else was doing abstracts? Back then, even Bill Reid had just completed his mastery of traditional form and had yet to edge towards the free-form works of his last period. It would be almost two decades, too, before Robert Davidson would become one of the best known artists to move towards abstraction and post-modernism.

However, in an interview excerpted on the Museum of Anthropology web page, Cranmer explains that he was reacting against the orthodoxy created by Bill Holm’s book Analysis of Form, the first to codify the basic elements in Northwest Coast art.

“After the book came out, all of a sudden there was a right and a wrong way of doing things. We never had that before,” Cranmer said. “The book has served its purpose in explaining Indian designs and elements, but a lot of people followed the book to the letter: as a result, their work has come out all looking the same.”

Apparently in reaction to this tendency, in 1974-5, Cranmer began a series of 48 paintings. “I was doing them differently for the sake of being different.” he said. “I was doing things in Northwest Coast-type design elements that didn’t look like a bird, a fish, an animal, a man or a woman. It worked for a while, but then I noticed that they [the paintings] were starting to look like something again.”

If you look at “Ravens in Nest,” you can see this anarchistic outburst very clearly. The classic formline of Northwest Coat art barely puts in an appearance in the print. Instead, that flexible container of design elements which is generally black, is replaced by a thick red border. Perfect circles replace ovoids. U-shapes, unusually colored blue, float freely across the top, changing direction on each line, and change shapes along the bottom. Blue and red are the main colors, not black. The expected curve of the young ravens’ beaks – an identifying element of a raven in the traditional art — is reduced to the slightest tip possible Instead of the classic symmetry, everything is decidedly unbalanced.

You might almost say that “Ravens in Nest” is a Northwest Coast print because of all the things that it does not do. Like early post-modern works, the print works to the degree that you know the tradition that it is reacting against.

Furthermore, the more you do know, the more what Cranmer has done makes you think about traditional Northwest Coast forms. In fact, while Cranmer may have been reacting against orthodoxy, what he has produced is just as dependent on tradition as any piece that carefully follows the norms outlined by Holm. The only difference is that “Ravens in Nest” is dependent on tradition as its polar opposite, rather than as a key to its technique.

At the same time, while you can easily intellectualize about the piece, its subject remains clear: four hungry and clamoring young ravens. I don’t know if Cranmer intended the effect, but the floating U-shapes seem a graphical representation of the sound they are making, chaotic and clashing.

Such paintings were only a momentary experiment with Cranmer, but they had few if any imitators. The result is that the prints still offer a unique and challenging perspective thirty years after the original paintings. I am not fond of the average abstract, but in Cranmer’s I see a bold and innovative exception that I am proud to hang on our wall.

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