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Posts Tagged ‘Lyle Wilson’

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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Any exhibit by Haisla artist Lyle Wilson is worth seeing. With a career spanning thirty-five years, in media varying from wood to metal and from jewelry to sculpture, Wilson is one of the major figures in Northwest Coast Art, deserving to be mentioned alongside names like Robert Davidson and Dempsey Bob. However, “Paint,” his current exhibit at the Maple Ridge Art Gallery, is more worth lingering over than most.

For one thing, paint is not a medium that is popular in Northwest Coast art. Its place has largely been taken by limited edition prints, despite the fact that many artists experiment with it. Wilson in particular is not known for it, and went so far at the reception as to say that it was a medium that he disliked. However, given that Wilson says in the program book that he has done over seventy paintings in his career – forty of which are on display in “Paint” – and has stored many unsold for decades, this professed dislike should probably be received with some skepticism.

When Wilson talks about painting, especially the superiority of wood rather than canvas or paper, his tone is calm but clearly engaged, so perhaps the lack of a market has more to do with his claim than any personal preference. Wood, as he pointed out when I talked to him, is the traditional medium for most of the painting on the coast, and he agreed that “warmth” was a suitable adjective for describing its effect compared to canvas or paper.

Which brings up another point: unlike Wilson’s “North Star” exhibit three years ago, which was mostly a display of Wilson’s versatility in different media, “Paint” is about tradition and its role in modern art as much as media. This concern is highlighted in pieces like his illuminated map of traditional Haisla territory, or in his word paintings or his designs that include the major crests of the Haisla nation.

Less obviously, it shows in his attempts to trace ovoids and other elements from the northern style of design to the anatomy of local wildlife; for instance, he suggest that ovoids originate in the eyes of the skate fish.

Tradition, shows, too, in the marine life that crowds Wilson’s work. Skate, halibut, octopi, red cod, salmon – always salmon, the mainstay of traditional life – cluster in much of his work, like “Raven and the Fisherman.”

Other designs are closeups of marine life, or designs made from their intertwined bodies. Their predators, such as the raven, eagle, and the heron also appear. More than most local First Nations artists, Wilson is always mindful that the traditional culture was one that harvested the ocean and depended upon it.

Another way to look at “Paint” is from a personal level. A miniature Tsimshian-style house front and moon reflect Wilson’s personal studies.

One or two small paintings are studies for larger works, such as “Orca Chief,” which was the model for the sculpture “Orca Chief” at the Vancouver airport.

The exhibit shows, too, how Wilson mixes contemporary life with his artistic tradition, as in his alphabet or maps – the closest, perhaps, in contemporary culture that he can come to the role of art in Haisla tradition – and in his traditional orca spouting rainbows of color.

Circle the exhibit several times, and you can also start getting a sense of his preferred palette, a muted selection of colors far less vivid than, for instance, that of Robert Davidson. In fact, much of Wilson’s strongest work is black and white, where his control of contrast is as subtle as it is effective.

“Paint” is a show that is as intellectual as it is personal. Thankfully, it is accompanied by a sixty-six page catalog that combines Wilson’s artistic statements with personal memories and the sometimes fragmentary remnants of his culture past, as well as a strong plea for a revival of interest in the Haisla language, which is quickly approaching extinction. Far from being the usual collection of glittering generalities, this is a catalog rich in personal and cultural biography that adds genuine aesthetic and intellectual appreciation to the exhibit itself.

In fact, ideally, anyone interested in Northwest Coast art should attend the exhibit, then take the catalog home and read it slowly and carefully in preparation for a second, more informed visit (which is what I hope to do myself, even though Maple Ridge is a ninety minute bus ride away). But even if you can only manage one trip, “Paint” is a major show by a major artist, and you are sure to come away with a stronger sense not just of the artist and his art, but also of the culture behind them.

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YVR, Vancouver’s airport, is noted for its collection of local First Nations art. I’ve wanted a tour for over a year, but they aren’t always easy to come by, since they involve weaving in and out of security areas. However, today my chance came at last. Together with Ann Cameron, the editor of Coastal Art Beat and my colleague on the YVR Art Foundation board, we followed Rita Beiks, the airport’s art consultant, back and forth through the terminal until I was throughly lost, but marveling at the airport’s collection.

We met at the foot of Don Yeoman’s “Celebrating Flight,” a four-story pole that mixes Haida mythology with Celtic knotwork and a greeting in Chinese. The knotwork and Chineese characters, Rita said, replaced the originally planned figures because of some knots in the wood that made the figures impossible. By itself, the pole is impossible to photograph without a crane and bucket, but when you realize (as I had not) that everything from the panels representing the northern lights at the top to the mosaic on the floor and the moon some distance away are all part of the installation, then taking a complete picture becomes even more impossible.

From the pole, we walked to the terminal’s best-known installation: Bill Reid’s “Jade Canoe,” version of “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.” The “Jade Canoe” is a copy of the “Black Canoe” at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C. However, while the “Black Canoe” is barely visible for security reasons, the “Jade Canoe” is so accessible that people have rubbed the bronze patina off the paddles and some of the other reachable parts of the sculpture. A sign telling people not to climb the sculpture is necessary, and the tradition has grown up that rubbing Mouse Woman’s nose is good luck.

Rita gave a brief history of the negotiations for the piece, which cost three million – an unheard of figure for an airport to spend on art in the early 1990s, and mentioned that the piece was orginally intended to have a copper patina, and changed to bronze only after a phone call from airport official Frank O’Neil to Reid, who at the time was in intensive care. She also pointed out that Lutz Haufschild’s “The Great Wave Wall,” which replaces the nearby windows on the terminal, was chosen as a suitable backdrop to Reid’s iconic piece.

Leaning over the railing, we looked down at the arrival level to Nu-chu-nualth artist Joe David’s “Clayoquot Welcome Figures.” Originally carved for Expo 67, the figures are on permanent loan from the Vancouver museum. Their popularity is so great that they needed a railing to protect them; even so, money is still regularly found in their hands.

We then moved into the secure area for departure and arrivals. Strangely enough, Rita and Brenda Longland, the airport official with us, both had to submit to the usual inspection of their belongings, while Ann and I sailed through without any problems with our visitors’ badges.
We passed display cases with the works of YVRAF scholarship winners from 2010, including Latham Mack’s Nuxalk mask and robe, and Todd Stephen’s drum. Like the other scholarship pieces scattered throughout the terminal, these pieces will be on display until June 2012, when they will be replaced by the work of the 2011 scholarship winners.

The next permanent display was the Pacific Passage in the arrivals area, a combination of diorama and original art.

I had seen the Pacific Passage several times, but always after a long flight that left me rushing to the fresh air, and uninclined to give the art treasures on display more than a passing glance.
That was a mistake on my part, because the display is well worth lingering over. It is dominated by Connie Watt’s thunderbird.

Also in the area is an aluminium panel by Lyle Wilson and a canoe by Tim Paul, as well a number of smaller pieces. Bird sounds start as soon as you enter the area, and I was amused to see the swallows who live in the terminal sheltering in the empty eagle’s nest that was added to the dioramas for realism.

Walking down the overhead walkways, we stopped next at the Musqueam Welcome area, the contribution of the First Nations people on whose territory the airport stands. According to Rita, Frank O’Neill, the airport official responsible for the idea of the First Nations collection, was convinced of the need for the area when the Musqueam chief told him that not having the local nation included there would be like having a sign in Ireland saying, “Welcome to the United Kingdom.”

Accordingly, arrivals are greeted first by the Musqueam, and then by Canada. One of the first sites arrivals see is Susan Point’s giant spindle whorl set against a waterfall – an impressive site even if you have been flying all night (although the palms to each side are incongruous; can’t native plants be used instead?).

Turning to the stairs and escalators that lead down to the custom booths, the first thing arrivals see are free-hanging samples of Musqueam weaving.

Moving to the steps and escalators, below them arrivals see the Musqueam welcome figures. These were originally carved by Shane Point, but when Musqueam women complained about the sagging breasts on the female figure, it was replaced by the less controversial figure by Susan Point that stands there today.

Only as you descend do you appreciate the sheer size of the figures; by the time you are on the same level, you realize that they are enormous.

Our next stop was the artificial river that begins with an installation by Tahltan master carver Dempsey Bob, and winds down to an oceanic aquarium dominated by another piece by Haisla master Lyle Wilson.

Bob’s piece is “Fog Woman and Raven.” It is based on the tale of how Fog Woman, mistreated by her husband Raven, gathers up all the salmon from the streams and smoke houses, and prepares to depart the world with them. A little stiffer than many of Bob’s works, it is still a piece worth lingering over because of the details like the salmon caught in Fog Woman’s hair.

The figures are carved from laminated blocks of cedar – an expensive process that is rarely done because it involves shutting down a mill for the better part of a day. In fact, the first laminted block for Fog Woman was found to be punky inside, and had to be abandoned.

Bob’s tableau is surrounded by chairs, and would be a pleasant piece to linger beside, but, unfortunately no food vendors are nearby, so nobody does. Annoyingly, too, small merchandise displays are crowding the piece (we asked a cashier to move an obscuring sign, but it was back when we passed by again half an hour later)

At the far end of the river, Lyle Wilson’s “Orca Chief and the Kelp Forest” rest on top of an aquarium of fish, so that the chief lies half hidden in the kelp made from glass and looks down at the subjects whom he protects. Rita says that few people look up, and reactions to Wilson’s piece proves her point, since most people looked at the fish moving back and forth, but few ever glanced up to see the art above them.

Our last major stops on the tour were two pieces by Steve Smith. The first, “Freedom to Move,” is a series of painted panels that are intended to slow people down in their hurry through the airport.

Unfortunately, the piece is squeezed into a space too small for it, and the pool that is supposed to surround it is dry, but Smith still managed to slow me down for an appreciative moment or two.

The second of Smith’s installations, “Sea to Sky,” named for the highway to Squamish and Whistler, is a series of drums hung beneath a sky light. What we saw was the second version of the piece, parts of the first having been damage by temperature problems, crumbling with a sound like artillery one winter day (fortunately without anyone being hurt. Smith took advantage of the incident to paint bolder designs, and sold what remained of the first version.

These are only some of the collection we saw today. There were also a number of pieces by Roy Henry Vickers that were originally part of a longhouse that has since been destroyed. The longhouse’s pillars and several other designs are now temporarily scattered throughout the airport, most of them unlabeled.

Display cases throughout the terminal also carried such treasures as Hazel Wilson’s famous “Golden Spruce” blanket, which commemorates the recent felling of a particular tree famous in Haida mythology, Tim Paul’s “ClearCut and Dressed,” and some outstanding non-native work by local artists such as Graham Smith. However, enumerating the entire collection would require a blog five times as long as this one.

For lack of time, we also didn’t get to the “Supernatural World” installation by Dempsey Bob, Robert Davidson, and Richard Hunt on the domestic arrivals level. And the only reason Susan Point’s “Cedar Connection” was included in the tour was that we passed it on the way to the Skytrain and the parking lot as we left.

Still, I didn’t feel cheated by any omissions. After four and a half hours, my brain was as numb as my kneecaps. I had taken in as much art as I could appreciate for the day, and rode the Skytrain home, full of the dazed content that comes from prolonged exposure to fine art.

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With few exceptions, the collecting of Northwest Coast Art did not begin until the 1970s. That means that pieces from those collections are just now starting to appear in estate sales – sometimes at bargain prices, if the heirs are more interested in quick cash than obtaining the full value. Consequently, when a copy of Lyle Wilson’s 1980 limited edition print “Shaman’s World “ showed up at the Inuit Gallery during the summer, I quickly snapped it up.

The print would be unusual today, but, when it first appeared, it must have seemed utterly unique. I tag it in my mind as a Northwest Coast Gothic, a kind of predecessor of Ron Telek’s work. It is also Gothic in a modern sense: monochromatic, macabre, and, quite possibly, self-consciously over the top.

The shaman’s world, apparently is actually two worlds, one the mundane world of light, and the other the dark world of the supernatural and other realms like the sky and the depths of the ocean. In the mundane world is the head of an eagle – perhaps a tutelary spirit to judge from the hand above it – while below it is a figure that may be a man terrified of the shaman, but which I suspect is a masked dancer, trying to make sense of reality through his dance. Meanwhile, in the spirit world, a man transforms into an eagle while below it swims a killer whale, another figure of power.

Neither world has much in common with the other except the shaman, who stands in the middle like a sort of ying-yang symbol, half of him in each world. Both worlds are contained in a frame of human figures (whose formline shapes suggest that they are intended as skeletons), birds and monsters that are apparently wolves. The tops and bottom of the frame are mirror images, perhaps adding the additional dimension of life and death to the cosmology contained within the print.

The shaman’s position, clearly enough, indicates that the shaman mediates between all aspects of the world, as well as their different methods of understanding. It might also be significant that the shaman is less skeletal than the human figures in the outer frame and has a differently shaped-head; perhaps the suggestion is that the shaman is the only piece truly alive.

The formlines in “Shaman’s World” are wonderfully simple, defined largely by interior elements to indicate knees and hips and chests. They flow from one shape to another, as good formline should, but so do the elements of the design. For instance, although the shaman’s arms are held in front his chest, the body of the human transforming into a bird and the first sprouting feathers look, at first, like an additional arm. Similarly, the twisted body and tail-flukes of the killer whale suggest a third leg. Together with the formlines, these flowing shapes help assure that the viewer’s eyes are never still, picking out a detail here and there, but always moving around the design.

Another obvious element is the use of blank space. Although much of the design is symmetrical, especially in the frame, the blank spaces on both sides of the shaman are highly irregular, being open and broad on the mundane side, and narrow and twisting on the spirit side. In this way, both the traditional symmetry of most Northwest Coast art and the asymmetrical preferences of modern design appear in the design – yet another set of elements that the shaman mediates between.

By restricting himself to black and white, Wilson relinquishes whatever a secondary or tertiary formline color might have brought to the print, but probably it is just as well – had he added red or blue or green, the design might have collapsed under its own weight. As things are, it is still a restless piece, full of contrasts and new elements to discover as your eye travels around it again and again.

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With no Northwest Coast art on layaway and no must-haves in the galleries or on the web, we didn’t expect to buy any new pieces this month. But luck struck unexpectedly, and early this month we were told that Trish’s ticket had won the pendant being raffled as part of Lyle Wilson’s North Star exhibit at the West Vancouver Museum.

Five centimeters in diameter and made of engraved silver, the pendant is a miniature version of the aluminum piece that was the logo for the show. Wilson’s aluminum sculptures are much more finely cut than most large scale Northwest Coast installations in the same metal, and, mounted some distance from the wall, cast shadows that quite literally give them another dimension. However, Wilson is known primarily for his jewelry, so the pendant is perhaps more representative of him.

lyle-wilson-aluminium

Like much of Wilson’s work, the pendant is a mixture of European and Haisla tradition. The pendant is a compass rose, with the four cardinal points marked by arrows, and the figure of what I believe is a bear in the middle. The pendant differs from the aluminum logo in that the cardinal points do not extend beyond the circumference of the design, and the image of the bear is slightly smaller in diameter.

What the pendant has that the logo lacks is a variety of different hatching techniques. At the outer rim, the hatching is a series of finely etched vertical lines, each extremely fine but distinct. A band of unadorned metal separates the uttermost hatching from a smaller band that continues the vertical lines. The fourth ring of hatching is an equally fine stippled effect that extends into the compass points. The inner figure is separated by yet another fine ring of vertical lines, and is itself a small show piece of diagonal lines, with the face, the lower left and the upper right slanted to the right, and the upper left and lower right to the right. Most design teachers would advise students not to mix so many hatching styles in such a small space, but it speaks volumes about Wilson’s virtuosity that he is able to ignore such standard advice and produce such an intricate design.

The bear design, of course, is appropriate because the north star is in the constellation of Ursa Minor, the little bear. Perhaps, the pendant is the north star itself, with the outer vertical lines the rays of light radiating from it. Or, if you consider the design for a while, you might conclude that Wilson is playing with the idea of the bear being both a constellation and an earth-bound creature. To my eye, at any rate, the outer rim of vertical lines could suggest either the rays of the sun, or perhaps the northern lights, while the heavy stippling suggests the earth. These two realms are bridged by the points of the compass, which are identifiable by taking a bearing (if you pardon the pun), on the north star.

At the same time, you could take the contrast between sky and earth as a reflection of the two cultures that Wilson is caught between. With the emphasis on the compass in the pendant’s design, the sky could be interpreted as modern scientific culture, and the earth as Wilson’s first nation roots. Alternatively, you could reverse the interpretation, and see the bear in the sky as the mythologizing that informs the first nation cultures, the earth the mundane reality of the city in which Wilson lives. The interpretation works either way, because what matters is the contrast.

However, such readings are not my first reaction to the pendant. My first reaction is respect for Wilson’s attention to detail. Looking at the pendant, I am never in any doubt that I am looking at a piece by a master carver, and it is appreciation of his skill that makes me grateful that we have the right to house it.

lyle-wilson-pendant

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Like most enthusiasts of Northwest Coast art, I am familiar with Haisla artist Lyle Wilson mainly because of his gold and silver jewelry. I was vaguely aware that he was also a carver, but for every pole I’ve seen by him, I must have seen a dozen of his gold or silver bracelets or pendants. That is what makes the West Vancouver Museum’s show “North Star: The Art of Lyle Wilson” so interesting: by focusing on his painting and carving, it shows a side of Wilson that most people only occasionally see.

The show consists of about fifty pieces chosen by Wilson. Ranging from the most traditional of designs painted on cedar to stylized aluminum and a painted acoustic guitar, and from a map of British Columbia’s first nations displayed on the PNE to pieces from his own collection of his works, the selections in the show show Wilson not just as a master artist (I already knew he was that), but also as far more versatile than I realized. The exhibit does include several pieces of Wilson’s jewelry, including one piece that was designed specially for the show, and is being raffled off . However, in size as well as number, it is the paintings on cedar and other sculptures that dominate the two rooms of the museum’s gallery.

At least half a dozen pieces in the show were paintings on cedar. The local first nations, of course, have been painting designs on cedars for centuries, but most Northwest Coast artists today prefer paper to cedar, and prints to painting. By contrast, Wilson’s apparent liking for cedar is not only traditional, but gives his paintings a three-dimensionality that even canvas cannot match, bringing them closer to masks and other carved objects. The grain also gives his painting an additional aspect to catch the eye. On one small painting of a heron, Wilson even combines a background of red cedar with a yellow cedar frame, the contrast adding another source of visual appeal.

Although the show does include several paintings on paper, and one sketch of a miniature pole that is also in the show, they are easy to overlook compared to the works on cedar. One especially interesting piece, which several visitors have declared the best in the show, is a marine scene called “Raven and the Fisherman,” with a blue line separating the canoe, raven and sun above the water from the teeming undersea world of orcas, seals, salmons, sharks, octopuses, eels, and crabs that take up three-quarters of the the painting and bisected by a red fishing line. While individual figures conform to the northern formline tradition, apart from their heavy use of red, the overall composition is asymmetrical and chaotic. Yet, far from appearing naive, the crowded painting against the wooden medium is more suggestive of a classical Chinese screen than anything else.
Another masterful work is of a dogfish, and seems to represent the moment when Dogfish Woman transformed for life in the sea. With its sheer size and the two red eyes with cross-hatched irises and pupils with designs in them, it easily dominated its space, and the gallery wisely placed it as far as possible from other works. Even by the door, across two rooms, it caught and held the eye.

Other examples of Wilson’s woodwork in the show ranged from two intricately carved wooden plates – one designed around salmon, and another, a freestanding sculpture, a yew pendant, and a model spirit canoe.

However, what vied most with the paintings on cedar for my attention were Wilson’s recent works in aluminum. New media are more the rule than the exception in Northwest coast art (consider the rise of silver, gold and argillite in the 19th century, or the recent popularity of glass), but the metal sculptures I have seen by other artists have largely seemed to me simplistic and too post-modern to be wholly successful.

By contrast, Wilson’s four aluminum works in the show manage to be both modern and traditional at the same time. They include a sculpture done for the show, a small version of the “Orca Chief” that is in the international departures lounge of the Vancouver airport, and one in which the medal is painted red. Set parallel to the wall by posts, they pose new design questions to the traditional forms – for instance, how do you minimize the thickness of the juncture of formlines when the freestanding parts have to be supported by one another? Wilson’s answer is a mixture of layers, a cutting away of corners and other techniques. At the same time, the sculptures are so detailed and finely cut that they are easily a match for traditional media in visual interest.

Another interesting aspect of the aluminum sculptures is that, because they stand away from the wall, they create interesting labyrinths of shadows on the walls behind them. In effect, the shadows become part of the sculpture – and, when you consider that, for centuries, many pieces of Northwest Coast art were seen largely by firelight, a completely appropriate part.

The museum staff member on duty obligingly let me take pictures so long as they were only done with a digital camera. However, she asked that I not use them professionally. I take that to mean that they should not be published in any way, which means that, unfortunately, I cannot add the pictures I took to this blog entry. Instead, all I can do is to recommend the Lyle Wilson show in the highest possible terms. If you’re like me, you’ll come away with a whole new perspective on Wilson, and even greater respect (if that were possible) for his skill and versatility as an artist.

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