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Posts Tagged ‘masks’

Back in June, I had dinner at the Steamworks pub with Haida / Tsimshian artist Mitch Adams and his wife Diana. Mitch kindly offered me a selection from the giclee prints that he was in Vancouver to sell. Few things feel so luxurious as a choice like that, and I could have selected several from his portfolio. However, eventually I decided on “January Moon,” which was the inspiration for his “Blue Moon Mask,” which was one of the standouts at the 2010 graduation exhibit for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art.

The connection between the two pieces would have been obvious even if Mitch had not mentioned it. But the differences are interesting, because they show the evolution from a good execution of an idea to an outstanding one. There is little in “January Moon” that is not improved in “Blue Moon Mask.”

"January Moon" (left) and "Blue Moon Mask" (right)

The most obvious differences are in the shape and color. With its perfectly round shape, “January Moon” feels relatively static, and more abstract. In comparison, the change to an oval face in “Blue Moon Mask” is more ambiguous, as well as more realistic. Just as importantly, the colors are bolder and more glossy in the mask, as well as the contrast between them. In the print, the colors are muted, and the tones are a better match, but the result is that design tends to fade into the paper.

The exception to this general observation is the blue and black design on the rim. “January Moon”’s rim has more contrast between the colors, while “Blue Moon Mask”’s uses a darker blue that is much closer to the black. This change works because it frames the face most clearly; in “January Moon,” the blue of the rim is closer to those of the face, so that the rim frames less effectively.

However, the greatest changes are in the face. Some elements remain the same, most noticeably using the same colors for the lips, nostrils, and eyebrows. But, in “January Moon,” the eyes are also the same color, which is probably one feature too many for the design, which seems much busier than the mask.

By contrast, on “Blue Moon Mask,” the design is simplified. The teeth are gone, whose black outline is mildly discordant in “January Moon,” and much of the complication of the highlighting as well. The eyes shrink from an angry glare to closed eyelids, and the lips are smaller and barely parted instead of scowling.

The only element that is added is the tear tracks from the eyes, which I suspect originated in an accidental trickle of paint, but which works brilliantly, helping to emphasize the elongation of the face and suggesting an undercurrent of suppressed intense emotion beneath the surface appearance of serenity.

Somewhere in the middle of all these changes, the gender changes as well. “January Moon” registers as masculine to my eye (and that of those who have seen it), perhaps because of the mouth and bared teeth. “Blue Moon Mask,” however, seems female, or at least sexually ambiguous. Added to the suggestion of intense emotion being controlled, this ambiguity makes most eyes keep returning to “Blue Moon Mask” in a way that they do not to “January Moon.” Despite “January Moon”’s aggressive expression – or perhaps because of it – the eye has a hard time lingering over it. Its anger has nothing of the mystery found in “Blue Moon Mask.”

None of this is to dismiss “January Moon.” Its non-traditional eyes with their crescent moon and the creation of the nose through a clever use of negative space are admirable in themselves – so much so that I could wish they could have somehow been retained in “Blue Moon Mask.” But in the end, “January Moon” could be described as a first draft for “Blue Moon Mask.” Although “Blue Moon Mask” is the superior work, very likely it would not have succeeded if “January Moon” had not been created first. Together, they show an artist taking a leap in his development – and, I suspect, learning a lot in the process himself.

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The Northwest Coast art in our home includes many contemporary pieces. However, I am also fascinated by traditional pieces, particularly recreations of historical masks according to modern sensibilities. That is why, when John Wilson’s “Voices of Our Ancestors” (aka “Portrait Mask”) became available, I jumped at the chance to buy it.

John Wilson, "Spirit of Our Ancestors"

“Voices of Our Ancestors” is based on two historical Haisla masks in J. C. H. King’s “Portrait Masks from the Northwest Coast of America,” a book first published in 1979. It is a mask well worth studying for its own sake, all the more so because examples of Haisla design are relatively rare. When you do see them, you have no trouble placing the Haisla geographically, because their art often seems like a combination of Kwakwaka’wakw and Tsimshian traditions. Nor is Wilson’s mask an exception.

Artists Unknown, Historic Haisla Masks

However, what especially interests me is Wilson’s reinterpretation of the historic masks. To start with, Wilson chooses a less rounded, more northern shape for the mask. This change is accompanied by some changes in proportions, such as a wider space between the lips and nose, and a higher placement of the ears. He has also decided not to include the teeth that are in the originals, and replaced the originals’ rounded eyes with more smaller, more slanted ones. In addition, the cheekbones of Wilson’s mask are far less prominent than in the originals. The result is a less human, more supernatural look – a fitting change, considering that the mask is a work of a modern man looking back on the past.

Another noticeable difference is in the selection of colors. This difference is not just a matter of what was available; one of the older masks actually has a brighter red than the one that Wilson uses. By contrast, even allowing for aging, the historical piece has a more subdued blue than Wilson uses. Wilson also accents the red by drawing thicker formlines, and using it in places where the historical piece uses blue.

Wilson has followed the general designs of the original, including the stylized mustache and goatee, but almost always he has put his own interpretation on them. For instance, he has taken the rows of parallel lines just visible on the colored original, and added them as a design element below the nose, replacing the rather uninspired blobs of cross-hatching, and perhaps suggesting mustache stubble.

However, the largest difference between Wilson’s mask and its inspiration is in the form lines. Although formline influence is obvious in the originals, Wilson’s formlines are more disciplined, with more variation in thickness and more balance. For instance, where the formlines on the forehead in the original meets above the left eye, Wilson’s meet between the eyes. Similarly, where the original has formlines meet on on the cheeks, Wilson’s meet at the nostril.

Probably the most obvious difference in the design is on the cheeks, where the formline helps to replace the cross-hatching, and the blue u-shapes are greatly reduced in size. Even more importantly, the red formline that follows the line of the cheek curves upwards rather than downwards as in the original, doing more than any single element to make the modern mask less human and more arresting than the originals.

“Spirit of Our Ancestors” is obviously influenced by the sources that Wilson acknowledges, but clearly it is more than imitation, or an unthinking copying of a classical piece. Wilson’s mask is more balanced piece of work than either of the originals, with a stronger northern influence as well. Although somewhat of a new direction for Wilson, it more than succeeds on its own terms. Wilson has not simply copied, but repeatedly improved as well.

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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.
beau-dick-bukwus

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John Wilson, who describes his work as “contemporary Haisla,” has only been selling his work for a few years. And, so far, he has confined himself largely to portrait masks, although he has also done drums and some graphics worth releasing as limited edition prints. I consider his “Blue Hand Mask” (which should actually be read as “Blue, Hand Mask”) an accomplished example of the portrait genre, and am pleased to add it to our collection.

If you have read Bill Holm’s An Analysis of Form, you will immediately identify the “Blue Face Mask” as being in the northern style: although the nostrils and lips are painted solidly, the hand and the spirit-helper on the left temple cut across the facial features. In fact, you cannot tell where the spirit-helper ends and the eyebrow begins – that is, what is natural and what is painted, or what is mundane and what is supernatural. Also typical of the northern style is the predominance of black, followed by red.

What is less typical is the band of blue. Cutting across the eye socket and eyelid, the band is an unusual shade. It has the effect of drawing your glance to the blackness of the pupils, giving a sense of fierceness or determination.

The painted hand is a visual pun. It has an umbilical-like connection to the spirit-helper that runs below the chin and up the left cheek. In other words, the spirit-helper is literally lending a hand. And, just to reinforce the pun, the obvious thumb shows that it is a left hand, originating on the same side as the spirit-helper.

One of the things that makes this mask stand out is the sheer skill of carving. Unlike many carvers early in their career, Wilson thinks in planes. That means he is working with the wood, rather than against it. At the same time, the mask is closer to realism than a strictly traditional piece in such features as the chin, the eye sockets, and eyes – which is what makes the mask contemporary.

Another outstanding feature of the mask is the way that Wilson has carved and sanded down to the grain that is suitable in different parts of the face. On the forehead, the ridges of grain meet almost in the center, while on the left cheek, the concentric circles of the grain emphasize the plane of the cheek bone. Even more interestingly, beneath the eyes are what might almost be reflections of them in the grain. Some bits of this attention to the grain are lost beneath the paint, but, because the paint is minimized, much of it remains visible.

Portrait masks are an easy genre to under-estimate. They lack the exoticness of a mythological theme or a stylized animal that many people seem to want in Northwest Coast art. But, if you look closely at the best examples of them, like the “Blue Hand Mask,” then you can start to appreciate them as a genre in which artists are thrown back entirely on their own skill. You can also understand why I think that John Wilson is an artist who is likely to make a name for himself.
low-res-blue-hand-mask

(Note: Somebody should explain to galleries that, when shipping masks with hair, they need to make some effort to keep the hair from getting tangled. As you can see, I am still trying to straighten out the hair)

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After several months of down payments, we’ve added the first mask to our collection of Northwest Coast art: “Spirit Moon Mask” by Ron Joseph Telek.

Telek is a great original – perhaps the great original in Northwest Coast art today. Inspired, they say, by a car accident in which he was legally dead for a few minutes, his work is largely concerned with images of transformation and shamanism. While his work obviously comes out of the northern tradition in British Columbia, it breaks with the tradition as much as it keeps it.

His work is quirky, asymmetrical, and fully of little details, and often more than a little disturbing. I’d call it the carved or sculpted equivalent of a Gothic novel – a dark, romantic, and highly individualistic style. Others have called him the first surrealist of the Northwest Coast, and likened some of his more disturbing images to Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

His imagination alone would make him one of the top carvers and sculptors on the coast today, but Telek is also a painstaking craftsman, much like his uncle Norman Tait, whom he once studied under. Like Tait, Telek is a master of using the grain of the wood to enhance his subject matter.

The same is true when he turns to other materials – there is a walrus tusk he did a couple of years back languishing in a Vancouver gallery which is so eeriely beautiful that it had to be moved further away from another piece of ivory so as not to outshine it.

Another characteristic of Telek’s work is that, in contrast to what might almost seem his imaginative excess, his finishing details are always meticulous and restrained – you won’t find any tarting up of a mask with rings of unmatched abalone or endless cascades of horse hair in Telek’s work, the way you do in less talented artists. And you never do see paint, which other artists sometimes cake on to hide defects. Like Tait, if Telek adds a finishing detail, it’s for effect.

And if all this wasn’t enough, Telek’s imagination seems endless. Other artists may have periods in their development, in which work after work resembles each other, but Telek’s periods don’t seem to last for more than a piece or two before he moves on to something new. Possibly, this restlessness works against him in the galleries, where many buyers want something familiar, but, I prefer to think of it as one more sign of an inventive and agile mind.

“Spirit Moon Mask” is one of Telek’s smaller, tamer pieces, but it strikes an interesting balance between tradition and the west coast contemporary style of architecture. But the type of odd details that make his other work so lively are there. The wall-eye, the bit of abalone that could either be a nose-piercing or a wound, the strained-looking cheekbones, the arms of the spirit rising from the moon that look like tentacles, the spirit’s arched back and round-mouthed scream — for such a simple piece, the number of unusual touches crammed into the mask is overwhelming.

Since our townhouse is small, we had been thinking of limiting ourselves to one work by each artist who attracted our attention. But, already, we are talking about making an exception in Telek’s case. Perhaps, too, we’ll save for eight or nine months and buy one of his really big works, even if we have to rent the townhouse next door to display it properly. Frankly, we’re hooked.

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