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Posts Tagged ‘Lattimer Gallery’

Paintings have never been a large part of modern Northwest Coast Art. Since the 1960s, artists have preferred to release limited edition prints instead. Recently, though, this trend has shown signs of changing.

Ever since the 1960s, limited prints have been far more common than paintings. The reason is simple economics: A limited print costs the buyer anywhere from half to one-tenth the price of a painting, which pleases buyers not interested in an investment. If a run of a hundred can be sold, the artist makes much more than they would from a painting – enough, with luck, to allow them to earn a living from their art.

As a result, limited prints have long been the norm in Northwest Coast Art, despite the forgeries that have been periodically discovered. By contrast, artists interested in painting have often found selling their work to galleries difficult. A few exceptions exist, such as Robert Davidson in the last decade, but they are exceptions because of their fame.

A better indication of the status of paintings in Northwest Coast art is the fact that even an artist as accomplished as Lyle Wilson could only manage a show consisting entirely of paintings this year – and at least two-thirds of the pieces were completed decades ago and had never sold. Meanwhile, an artist’s first limited print is still seen as an important step in their career.

However, the days when prints could be counted on to fund an artist’s career are rapidly coming to an end. Hundreds are entering a market that once sustained dozens, thanks in part to the relative cheapness of producing a print from a computer compared to traditional silk screening.

Perhaps as a result, the average price of a print has declined or remained static, with many prints available for well under a hundred dollars unless the artist is well-known. Moreover, where, thirty-five years ago, so-called limited prints could have a release of five or six hundred copies, now releases of a hundred, or fifty, or even twenty have become common, partly to reduce forgery and partly to ensure that artists are not left with a large inventory of unsellable prints.

At the same time, Northwest Coast artists are more closely connected to other schools of art than they have been at any time in the last sixty years. Artists like Dean and Shawn Hunt have succeeded to some extent in selling canvases outside the usual Northwest Coast markets, and new artists – an increasing number of whom have attended art school – are becoming more interested in painting as well. In fact, I know several young artists who began working on canvas and only learned carving and metalwork later.

Whether on wood, paper, or canvas, painting has suddenly become semi-respectable. The Douglas Reynolds Gallery has been showing an increasing number of high-end paintings over the last couple years. Similarly, Lyle Wilson may have had to go to the suburb of Maple Ridge rather than downtown Vancouver to mount his recent Paint show, but the point is he managed to have the exhibit. And, as I write, I have just returned from the Lattimer Gallery’s opening reception for “medium: Painting on Canvas,” an exhibit of over fifteen canvases by both new and leading artists.

Slowly, painting is becoming acceptable in Northwest Coast art. It still has a ways to go – according to Peter Lattimer, for many of the artists in his exhibit, working on canvas was a new and not wholly comfortable experience. But the change is coming, all the same.

Most likely, painting will not replace limited prints. A handful of top artists are still doing well with limited prints, and will probably continue to do so for years. However, a day might come within the next decade when most limited prints are viewed as tourist wares and no longer as fine art.

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Last week when I was in the Lattimer Gallery, I received my copy of the book for the 2010 Charity Bentwood Boxes. It’s a small but well-designed book, and it reminded me that I hadn’t blogged about the box I bought in the auction.

2010 was the fourth year of the auction, with the proceeds going to Vancouver Aboriginal Health. The concept is simple: James Michels makes and donates the boxes, which are decorated by Northwest Coast artists, and the boxes are sold in a silent auction. In 2010, $10,850 was raised – more than double the amount raised the year before.

Over the last couple of years, the decorating of the boxes has become increasingly competitive as artists try to outdo each with their concepts. In 2010, for example, Landon Gunn added copper moon faces to his box, and Jing painted his in a Chilkat design. Steve Smith made his box a rattle. Even more extravagantly, Ian Reid (Nusi) crowded his with Tibetan pray flags and images of the Buddha, while Rod Smith chopped up his box and reassembled it. Perhaps the most ingenious box was Clinton Work’s “The Shop Thief,” a little man with the box for a body and the lid for a hat surrounded by the tools he had stolen – a theme that proved especially popular with the artists. If anything, the competition to be original promises to be even fiercer next year, with some artists already planning their designs for 2011.

I bid on several boxes, but, as I expected, the bidding soon got out of hand (even if it was for a charity). In the end, I was pleased to bring home “Hawk,” by Haida artist Ernest Swanson, a traditional piece that many people overlooked.

Part of the reason “Hawk” was overlooked may have been that it was on the bottom shelf of the display case, so you had to get down on your hands and knees to see it properly. But a larger reason, I suspect, was that it was a traditional piece with none of the embellishments of the more extravagant designs. When I contacted him online, even Swanson sounded like he thought he should produced something more original.

For my part, I have no complaints. Although I own a number of contemporary Northwest Coast pieces, I appreciate a traditional piece, too. Moreover, despite the fact that Swanson is relatively young, he has a reputation for traditional design, and for several years he has been on my short list of artists whose work I wanted to buy some day. I was delighted to get a sample of his work for a reasonable price – a sentiment that may sound unsuitable to a charity event, but I would be less than honest if I didn’t state it.

Much of Swanson’s work seems to be jewelry, a medium in which he is rapidly reaching the stage where his prices are soon likely to take a big jump upwards. That makes “Hawk” a bit of an exception in his work.

Nonetheless, I appreciate the boldness of the design, which has relatively little variation in line thickness. At the same time, it manages to be a busy design, perhaps because of the relative lack of red as a secondary color – a design decision that is almost a necessity, since too much secondary red would be garish and overwhelming given the bright red lit.

I appreciate, too, how the fact that centering the face on corners makes the design seem abstract from most angles, with the pattern only becoming obvious as you turn the box.

“Hawk” is a piece that you have to study for a while to appreciate. It stands now on my dresser, holding spare keys (because I feel that such a practical a thing as a box should be used, so long as it is used respectfully), and I find that my appreciation has grown even greater over the months of seeing and using it.

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