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Posts Tagged ‘Mitch Adams’

Miniature masks and sculpture are a test of an artist’s skill. They are merciless about showing who has a steady hand on the carving tool or the paint brush, and who cares about finishing details. Often, too, they demonstrate an artist’s ingenuity.  Tsimshian / Haida Mitch Adam’s “Peaceful Warrior” (shown below roughly full size) is an example of all these things, which is why I jumped to buy it when I learned it was available.

The mask is one of two that Adams carved from a block of laminated wood (the other is currently in the Spirit Wrestler Gallery). Except for a few pieces, such the eyebrows, the pupils, the lower lip, and part of the nostrils, what you see is not paint, but the natural colors of different layers of wood. From the outside working in, the layers are Swamp Ash, Ebony, Mahogany, Maple and Wenge. Adams has chosen to make so few additions to the block that you might call the result an example of minimalism.

Adams, who seems to be making miniatures one of his specialties, writes, “I enjoy carving this size of mask, to challenge my self and to see what level of detail and character I can get out of these woods. [I] try to carve and finish it as it would be done for a full size mask.”
Faced with such ingenious economy, what can I do except try to imitate it, and let the mask speak for itself?

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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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Mitch Adams is an artist I’ve been watching for some time. From the pictures he’s posted on Facebook in the last year, I suspected that it was only a matter of time before I saw one of his works that I wanted to buy. And, sure enough, when I walked into the 2010 Freda Diesing School Student Art Exhibition, his “Blue Moon Mask” immediately caught my eye. I consider it one of the finer examples of contemporary Northwest Coast art that I’ve seen in the last year – an opinion with which some traditionalists strongly disagree.

I am not the only one to think so highly of the mask. I know of at least half a dozen people who would have been happy to buy it, and who wished that it had not been marked as not for sale. Two of those people were frankly envious when I told them that, after I expressed my admiration, Adams decided not to send it to the upcoming Spirit Wrestler show after all, but to sell it to me. One even asked me if I would resell it.

Similarly, when I posted a picture of it in my review of the exhibition, one viewer called it “the most stunning mask I have ever seen.”

To me, such reactions seem perfectly logical for anyone who has troubled to look at the mask. Although “Blue Moon Mask” is covered entirely with paint, the paint is not so thick that you cannot see the smoothness of the carving.If anything, the palest blue on the mask tends to emphasis the plans of the carving, making them into shadows rather than lines.

The careful selection of the shades of blues is equally obvious, from the pale, almost white skin color to the darker blue on the outer rim, and makes the mask seem ever-changing, especially with the tear tracks falling from the eyes. Depending on the light and the angle, the mask can look serene, corpse-like, or even like the heavy makeup of a Goth on Friday night. It is a work that is both accessible and ambiguous at the same time.

Some aspects of the work are traditional. Looking through galleries or museums, you should have no trouble finding other moon masks of the same general shape. Many details are traditional, too, including the eyebrows and nostrils, and the array of U-shapes and ovoids surrounding the face.

Yet the work departs from the northern tradition in at least two key ways. For one thing, in the northern tradition, blue is a third color, used in small amounts if it is present at all. Black and red are the typical colors, with a third being added by the natural color of the wood. A departure from this norm is, by itself, enough to define a work as contemporary.

For another thing, the use of paint on the entire mask is unusual in Adam’s Haida and Tsimshian tradition (although not entirely unheard of, either). The northern tradition tends to be sparing in its use of paint, with designs painted across the mask that ignore the features beneath them. Adams’ decision to paint the entire mask would be more common in the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition, although, even there, his use of different shades of the same color instead of contrasting ones would be more characteristic of modern artists such as Beau Dick or perhaps Simon Dick.

To make these departures is a risk – but I believe it is a necessary one, of the kind needed to keep Northwest Coast art developing and relevant. Nor is it a unique one. Historically, the art form has long been a combination of local conventions meeting industrial societies’ technologies and sensibilities. So-called tradition has long changed and benefited from artists’ discoveries of metal tools, industrially produced paints, and, much later, of power tools. Similarly, the first European influence on subject matter is over a century and a half old, in top-hatted figures on poles and sailing ships on argillite plates. From this perspective, what Adams does in “Blue Moon Mask” is not radical, and should be easy to appreciate.

Yet, sadly, a minority noticed “Blue Moon Mask”’s departure from strict tradition and could not get past it. I am told that one teacher reacted strongly to it, and that another one joked about it. Even worse, some students, seeing the teachers’ reactions, immediately imitated them rather than using their own eyes.

These reactions strike me as both unfortunate and short-sighted. The basis of Northwest Coast art will always be the traditional work. If nothing else, the contemporary needs the traditional to react against.

Yet I do not see why admiration for the traditional must include a rejection of everything contemporary. True, you may prefer one over the other, or prefer one in your own work. But what you like and what is done well are by no means synonymous. Nor does preferring one require that you condemn the other.

Personally, I refuse to take sides. “Blue Moon Mask” is a technically skilled piece, and amidst our collection of traditional works by artists like Norman Tait or Richard Hunt and of contemporary pieces by artists like Alano Edzerza or Ron Telek, it claims a place on our wall on its own merits. It’s a piece that I consider myself lucky to live with, and I’m proud to have our keeping.

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