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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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Aboriginal artists in British Columbia have been combining traditions for some years now. Preston Singletary, for example, has collaborated with Maori artist Lewis Gardiner, while Terrance Campbell is strongly influenced by the jewelry of the American Southwest. But I admit I was skeptical about the collaborations of Mike Dangeli and Don McIntyre. Maybe the problem was my own ignorance, but I wondered how much artists like Dangeli in the Northwest style and McIntyre in the Woodlands style could exchange, beyond good will.

Don McIntyre (left) and Mike Dangeli (right)

However, in practice, the mingling of traditions works much better than I expected in “East Meets West: Throwing Power,” Dangeli and McIntyre’s combined show currently at the art gallery in the Student Union Building at the University of British Columbia.

The main reason, I suspect, is the obvious closeness of the two artists. Dangeli and McIntyre share studio space and are adoptive brothers. They share such a sympathy that at times, they say, they have trouble remembering who painted which line when they collaborate.

The mixture of their style may be sometimes jarring, but it succeeds because, while both Dangeli and McIntyre show a firm understanding of their respective traditions, they are also concerned with adopting those traditions to contemporary urban life, often with a sense of humor that begins with the titles of their works and continues with their choice of subject matter. Despite the large differences in traditions, this similarity of outlook allows them to meet in the middle, as their paintings do literally in the galley.

If you look at a selection of Dangeli’s work with any knowledge of the northern formline style, it immediately becomes obvious that he is intimately familiar with the tradition. And some of his work does not stray very far from that tradition, apart from the selection of colors.

However, in many of his pieces in this show, Dangeli’s rendering of that tradition is a departure from the norm. In the classical northern tradition, ovoids and U-shapes are rendered as though from a template – in fact, in large scale projects like house-fronts, artists often work from stencils.

Dangeli does work in this tradition. However, just as often – and perhaps increasingly – he favors a looser, hand-drawn rendering of classical shapes – a sketch as opposed to a smoothly finished work. Often, too, he combines shapes in non-classical ways. The result is that, where in his tradition, formlines tend to flow together, dragging the eye through a work, Dangeli’s looser renderings sometimes seem fragmentary and disjointed.

Perhaps the effect is a stylistic commentary on the survival of the northern tradition in industrial urban life. If so, the style is well-suited to Dangeli’s habit of commenting on this lifestyle.

The titles alone indicate his on-going commentary on the modern relations between First Nations people and this lifestyle, for instance, “Bright Shining Lie,” “For Those Who Had to Hide,” and “We Will Not Be Boxed In. Often, the titles are referenced by the techniques in each work, so that “Surviving the White Wash” literally has a wash of white over everything, while “We’re Not Open for Business,” an anti-Olympic statement,” has the shape of a Closed sign.

Don McIntyre’s relation to his tradition closely resembles Dangeli’s. Like Dangeli, McIntyre sometimes produces a piece that fits comfortably within his tradition, as in “A Place to Come Back To.”

"A Place to Come Back To"

Yet even when McIntyre appears to be working in the tradition, first impressions can be deceptive. His apparently innocuous drum (shown above), if you look closely, shows the union of sky and earth as an act of sex, and his title for this depiction of creation is “The Big Bang.”

Yet, where many Woodlands artists continue to depict natural scenes that have little in common with the cities in which they live, McIntyre tries to advance his school of painting by transferring its traditions to what he sees around him.

At times, the difference is subtle. As he pointed out to me at the exhibit’s opening, “Natural Urbanity” could easily be a classical work, if the streetlights were replaced by trees. At other times, as in “New Counsel,” nature creeps into the cityscape only in small oases, like the log that the birds in the canvas cling to.

"Natural Urbanity"

"New Counsel"

And, as in Dangeli’s work, McIntyre often turns his extension of his tradition into social commentary. In “(Dis) Placed Illusions,” for example, McIntyre combines an inukshuk, the symbol of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, with a sleeping polar bear, drawing a line between cultural appropriation and global warming .

"(Dis) Placed Illusions"

Combined with their friendship, such similarities make Dangeli and McIntyre’s collaborations exactly what collaborations should be: not just a juxtaposition, but something that neither could achieve by themselves.

For me, the most successful of the several collaborations on display was “Ben Couver: Olympic Gluttony.” The central figure, with its extended belly, fits in well with McIntyre’s style, in a way that it would not into Dangeli’s.

Yet, at the same time, Dangeli’s image of broken coppers being thrown into the water adds its own dimension. Moreover, the combination of Dangeli’s self-consuming two-headed serpent and McIntyre’s Wendigo provide two complementary images of destruction.

“East Meets West” is a small show, but it is an ambitious one. To its credit, though, it convincingly draws parallels between the two traditions in the show, and produces intriguing art in the process. While the gallery may be obscure for many people, it is well worth searching out just to see this show.

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