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Posts Tagged ‘northwestcoast art’

The first piece an artist does in any medium is frequently a labor of love. The artist has poured all their ability into the piece, and, even if the work is flawed, you can often tell the artist’s quality and interests from it. It was with these thoughts in mind that I jumped at the chance to buy Colin Morrison’s “Naxnox” which, as he wrote on its inside, is his “first mask ever.”

Even so, I was lucky to get it. A picture of the mask sent out in early December received a dozen replies within twenty-four hours, including eight or nine from galleries. This level of interest in an unknown artist’s work, especially at a time of year when sales are difficult, tells you all you need to know about the quality, even if you can’t judge it for yourself. It is a level of interest that, in fact, is almost unheard of.

The design is arresting to the casual eye for a number of reasons, starting with the contrast between the black and red and the thickness of their lines, and continuing with the unpainted nostrils and the ovoid in the middle of the forehead like a supernatural third eye. On the right, the mask looks dark and brooding; on the left, carnal and scowling. The result is a mask with an unusual degree of presence.

In terms of the northern school, the mask is even more interesting because it seems both traditional and contemporary at the same time. On the one hand, the shape of the mask is a standard one in Tsimshian art. The painting across the face without regard for individual features is also common in the northern schools. On the other hand, I have never seen paint applied in such an angular slash across the face to create such an asymmetrical, modern effect. You might almost say that the traditional and contemporary are at war across the mask – a suggestion of conflict that contributes to the strong sense of presence.

This sense of conflict seems especially apt when I remember Morrison’s description of his own background: “I’ve learnt as much as I could about traditional life as I could, but I feel as if I don’t know as much as the elders. I know a little more then the next guy, but not a lot. Most of what I learnt, came from books, my granny, and uncle. I don’t know a lot of my Sm’algyax, but some words I do know. I don’t dance, and don’t sing. I’m getting a Sm’algyax name when we have a feast, but I have been waiting for years for it to happen.”

Traditionally, naxnox was used to refer to the masks and regalia used in ceremonies. In Tsimshian languages like Sm’algyax (Coast Tsimshian), naxnox means “beyond human understanding.” Or, if you prefer, you might translate the word as “supernatural” or “spiritual.” Such works were often concealed when not being used, and, should they not be treated with the proper respect, were capable of extracting revenge.

Obviously, Morrison’s mask is not naxnox in the literal sense, since it is meant to hang on a wall rather than being danced. Yet, metaphorically, the name seems to suit the mask’s presence and its mixture of the traditional and modern.

I wonder: Could the meaning be extended to mean “psychological?” Or, more to the point, could it cover the latent power revealed in a first work? Although I’m not a linguist, I like to think that it could. Because, however you regard it, “Naxnox,” like Morrison’s “The Spirit of the Wolf,” is a work that holds great potential for Morrison’s future career.

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Mostly, I know the work of Salish artists John and Luke Marston from pictures. These days, they seem to be working largely on commissions, and such smaller work as they do is displayed mostly in galleries in Victoria. The few I’ve seen have been mostly at the Inuit Gallery, which has now taken the next step of hosting a show with some two dozen pieces entitled “Honouring the Ancient Ones.” I attended the opening of the show last Saturday, and I was appreciative of the skill I saw there, but a little taken aback by the prices.

The two Marstons are often spoken of in the same breath. Even if they weren’t brothers, that would be inevitable, because both begin in with the Salish tradition, often base works on historical artifacts, and show considerable promise as carvers. However, if you see “Honouring the Ancient Ones,” you are unlikely ever to mistake them again.

Assuming the show is any indication, John Marston favors boxes and rattles.

jm-box

jm-rattle

When he does a mask, it is generally on a stand.

jm-mask

Throughout his work, he shows a strong sense of line – something that loosely resembles the formlines of the northern first nations on the coast, but which follows few of its rules with any consistency.

jm-formline

The result is a body of work that is hauntingly familiar, yet fresh at the same time.

By contrast, Luke Marston seems interested in carving household goods, such as bowls and ladles.

lm-bowl

lm-ladle

He is also the maker of the only two bracelets in the show, although his metalwork skills seem less advanced that his woodcarving ones.

lm-bracelet

He also seems more interested in masks than his brother, including a transformation mask and a contemporary piece called “First Woman,” whose depiction of a woman’s face in the flames was for me the highlight of the show.

lm-first-woman

None of his work shows the same focus on line that his brother’s does, but – at least in this exhibit – he seems more interested in the historical roots of his art, citing several times in the catalog that various works are his rendering of a museum piece.

Both artists are worthy of admiration, but I know that the prices they are charging are causing some concern among Northwest Coast artists and galleries. There is an unspoken understanding that artists’ prices reflect their experience, and many people feel that neither Marston has paid enough dues to justify their prices. When I say that Luke Marston’s “First Woman” mask is in the same price range as master and elder carver Norman Tait, you will understand what I am talking about. I even know one gallery that decided against trying to host a show of the Marston’s work because its curators decided it could not afford the initial outlay of buying such expensive pieces.

On the one hand, this criticism has some justification. John and Luke Marston are outstanding carvers, but they are still relatively young and, for all their promise, they are still perfecting their skills. Not that anything is wrong with their finishing skills, you understand, but when you compare them to those of someone like Ron Telek or Stan Bevan, you can see that Marstons still have things to learn. For example, neither shows a strong sense of the grain, and their matching of abalone inlays while adequate, is not always as close as it should be.

On the other hand, the Marstons can obviously receive the prices they are asking. Despite the recession, sales were brisk at the opening. As I write, three days into the show, two-thirds of the works on display have sold, including some of the most expensive.

Judging from the crowd, I suspect that one reason they can charge as they do is that they are breakout artists – ones whose appeal extends beyond the usual Northwest Coast collectors and enthusiasts and appeal to the local mainstream art crowd. You might wonder if their work will increase in value as quickly as other artists’ given its initially high prices, but what are they supposed to do – deliberately undercharge what the market will bear? That seems too much to ask of anyone.

In the end, I decided the question of their pricing was secondary (especially since most of their work was beyond my bank balance). The way the Marstons are developing, the issue is likely to become moot in another five to ten years as their skill is generally recognized.

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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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In January, we missed by hours buying a dragonfly frontlet that Nisga’a master carver Norman Tait and his carving partner Lucinda Turner sold through the Inuit Gallery. The gallery told us that its staff would ask the team to do another frontlet, but we had heard nothing for a couple of months and were just concluding that a second one would not be available when we received email notice that it had arrived.

Did we snap it up quickly? somebody asked me via chat. Put it this way: We received the notice at 3:10. I replied that we would buy it at 3:12 – despite the fact that we prefer not to buy sight unseen, and are saving to pay our taxes. Some opportunities you just have to take when they arise, and, having missed the first frontlet, we were determined not to miss this one.

You see, Norman Tait is one of the four artists we most wanted a carving from (the others were Beau Dick, Stan Bevan, and Tait’s nephew Ron Telek). Tait is one of the most acclaimed Northwest Coast artists alive – and rightfully so, given his attention to detail and his careful finishing. In the last two decades, these distinguishing features have been supplemented by Lucinda Turner, who brings the same qualities to carving.

The only problem is, Tait’s acclaim means that their masks start at about $12,000. While this price is more than deserved, it means that their work is largely out of our price range unless we do some extremely careful financial planning over a year or more. By contrast, the frontlet is more within our price range.

More importantly, the frontlet is a miniature masterpiece in its own right. While in many ways the frontlet’s depiction of a beaver is traditional, it is full of small finishing details — the flare of the nostrils, the roundness of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, the roundness of the tail, the prominence of the front teeth and the curled lip – that lift it out of the mundane.

I like, too, the contrast between the heavy lines and planes of the figure and the lightly inscribed shapes along the border, to say nothing of how the beaver’s ears are incorporated in the border so as not to interrupt the line of the head. All the elements in the border are traditional, yet they are so lightly carved that they almost look like the letters of some unknown alphabet.

In short, everything about the frontlet indicates that it is the work of someone who is as comfortable with carving tools as I am with a keyboard or pen. Although it is undeniably a minor work, it displays Tait’s skill so completely that you can easily extrapolate from it what his poles and larger sculptures are like. As a friend said, having the frontlet in our home is bit like having a cartoon from Picasso.

We hung the frontlet near a similarly-sized piece by Ron Telek. That position gave us the additional pleasure of comparing the work of the master and his former apprentice. We could see that the same attention to detail and finishing was present in both works, but there was nothing you could call imitative in Telek’s work. He had learned the craft from Tait, but each carver has an imagination and style all his own.

Norman Tait: Beaver Frontlet

Norman Tait and Lucinda Turner: Beaver Frontlet

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