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Posts Tagged ‘shaman’

I’m at the point where I tremble when Gary Minaker Russ comes to town. I know that he will have at least one outstanding piece of argillite to sell, and that if I so much as glimpse it, I will be unable to resist the temptation to buy it, even if I can’t really afford to. That’s the story, really, of “Haida Shaman,” the latest piece I’ve bought from him.

When Russ first brought it to town, he sold it to the Inuit Gallery, where I admired it regularly. But no one bought it, and Russ prefers not to have his work languish for too long in a gallery. So he swopped it for his latest piece, and when we met at the Rhizome Cafe that afternoon, he hadn’t resold it.

A quick trip across the street to the bank machine, and it was mine, the balance to be paid  over the next month. One nervous Skytrain trip later, I had it beside my computer workstation.

“Haida Shaman” is a traditional piece. I mean that description in two senses, both complimentary. First, the pose is one that has been widely used throughout the hundred and eighty years of recorded argillite carving (as opposed to the unknown amount of time – decades? centuries? millennia? — that argillite may have been carved far more rarely, before it became one of the first cultural exports for the Haida).

The proportions, with the head a third of the body height, and the stance, one arm uplifted and the other in front of the chest, can be seen in any number of pictures, if you search libraries or even the Internet for pictures of argillite. So, in one sense, Russ is working in a very set subject, in much the same way a Renaissance European painter would be when painting a Madonna and child.

What you won’t see – at least today – is this pose done in the amount of detail that Russ has lavished on “Haida Shaman.” You’ll see the basic proportion and posture, yes, but not the detail. Most modern argillite carving is closer to engraving. It is covered with embellishments of inlaid precious and semi-precious stones, with the shapes hinted at rather than fully developed.

In several  pieces, the result is so abstract that only the posture is recognizable and there is little else to indicate that a shaman is depicted. The modern argillite market does not reward taking pains, and, in too many cases, the quality of the carving has declined while the cost of the raw materials have sent the prices soaring.

By contrast, “Haida Shaman” shows the attention to detail that I associate more with nineteenth century argillite pieces. Russ himself describes it as being more in his original – and preferred – style, and not the simpler style he has moved towards in the last decade and a half in order to make a living as an artist in an increasingly obscure art form.

This is the second sense in which the piece is traditional – in the pure sense of craft that has gone into it. For a style that is only partly representational, “Haida Shaman” packs an extraordinary amount of detail. Some of it may be hard to see in a picture, but the carving is full of realistic detail like the definition of the muscles on the arms, or the braiding of the rope the shaman wears, or the mass of hair in his topknot. I joke that the sculpture is a “traditional Haida action figure,” but behind that rather flippant comment, there is nothing but respect for the care that has gone into it.

These details are enhanced by the sparing use of ivory to contrast with the darkness of the argillite. Unlike many modern argillite carvers, Russ has not produced a gaudy piece, valued largely for its inlays. Nor has he added so many inlays before starting to carve that they get in the way of the detailing. Instead, the ivory appears where it doesn’t hide or overwhelm the details. It is used sparingly, with a restraint that allows it to work with the argillite, rather than against it.

You might say that “Haida Shaman” is an artist’s piece, done to satisfy Russ’ sense of how he should be working, with little regard for what sells. I am not in the least surprised that it didn’t sell while on display because, amid the other argillite extravaganzas available in the local galleries, “Haida Shaman” is an understated piece, with an emphasis on the craft of carving.

It’s because of pieces like “Haida Shaman” that I secretly look forward to Russ’ visits to town, not knowing what wonders he will quietly unwrap to tempt me with. I only know that most of what he brings to town will be wonders, and I will be tempted to bring at least one of them home.

Now, if I only didn’t have to explain that I wasn’t buying from a drug dealer when I deposit large sums of cash in his account, I would have nothing to complain about. I am both soothed and honoured to have pieces like “Haida Shaman” in my townhouse.

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Ian Reid (Nusi) is a Heiltsuk artist whose work I have been watching for a while. For a long time, I was determined that the first Reid piece that I would buy would be one of his Chilkat ravens, like the one that was in the Continuum show at the Bill Reid Gallery. However, when “Working Shaman” came into the Inuit Gallery last month, I leaped at the chance to buy it. The mask is a simple one in some aspects, but all the more appealing for that reason.

If you have read anything about shamanism on the Northwest Coast, you may remember that shamans typically did not wash or cut their hair. This is the main element in Reid’s mask, with its unkempt hair and mustache, its carelessly-tied topknot, and the white feathers. The blending of the red paint into the color of the unpainted wood also suggests a lack of cleanliness, or at least the chapped complexion of someone who spends most of his time outdoors.

Many shamans had a fearsome reputation (certainly, their graves were isolated, and not places where people lingered). This reputation is played upon in many modern renderings of shamans, but Reid has taken a different approach. His shaman is not so much a figure of fear as an eccentric. The unfocused eyes and slightly parted lips suggest the trance state of someone imperfectly grounded in the everyday world.

This is the first Heiltsuk piece I have bought, and I admit to knowing almost nothing of the Heiltsuk artistic traditions, mainly because they do not seem to have been studied in their own right. However, the carving and the painting suggest a tradition that I would expect from the Heiltsuk’s physical location: It mostly resembles the Kwakwaka’wakw, but also has a touch of northern formline as well.

Saying more is complicated by the fact that Reid seems to be drawing on 19th century sensibilities, rather than working as a modern artist familiar with the formal rules of formline. The formline on the mask is looser than modern artists usually draw today, and the U-shapes are independent decorations, not elements contained by the formline. In fact, such formline as appears is thin and almost overwhelmed by the red of the eye sockets and nose, and around the mouth.

Where you can see the plain wood, it looks old rather than recently carved. Add the smearing of the red, and the general impression is of an old mask – dug up, perhaps, from a shaman’s grave to put on display in a museum.

Given that much of Reid’s work is ceremonial and communal, this impression is probably deliberate. Artists who work both commercially and cultural generally make a distinction between the two types of work and, looking for a tradition for non-cultural work, what better place to find it than in a museum? That this is a mask to look at, not to be danced, is emphasized by the fact that not only are there no eye holes, but neither are there are any holes for the nostrils — not even an indication of where they would be.

Portrait masks can be hard to do well. Many carvers – and buyers – prefer bird or animal masks, that seem more imaginative. But in depicting a shaman and giving the mask a patina of historicity, in “Working Shaman,” Reid shows that a portrait mask can be as imaginative as any.

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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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One of the pleasures of buying work from beginning artists is watching them fulfill their potential. Last January, I saw enough promise in John Wilson’s work to buy one of his masks. Now, in masks like “Shaman and His Helpers,” his work has reached its first maturity.

Compared to most of Wilson’s earlier works, “Shaman and His Helpers” is a busy piece, both in subject and execution. It benefits, too, from Wilson’s study of traditional masks through pictures, the most obvious benefit being the use of eye holes instead of painted irises and pupils.

The mask depicts a shaman and his spirit helpers. One of the spirit helpers sits in the shaman’s mouth, as though resting after a long climb up his esophagus. The other sits in the middle of his forehead like a frontlet. Both these positions suggest that the helpers are indicators of the shaman’s true nature.

The helpers look more or less human, but the one in the mouth is in a vaguely frog-like position, while the one on the forehead is round enough to be a moon. While the shaman’s eyes are narrowed as though he is entering a trance, both helpers have closed eyes, as if asleep or focusing inwardly.

One way or the other, you sense, the shaman’s and the helpers’ eyes are going to be in the same state shortly: Either the shaman is about to enter their world of perception or else the spirits will come into his. No matter which happens, the result is a mask of a half-realized transition.

Interestingly, too, the spirit on the forehead is painted similarly to the shaman, while the spirit at the mouth is left unpainted. That may be an artistic decision made because any paint would be overwhelmed by the red of the shaman’s lips. But the effect is to suggest that the spirits are in some ways opposite.
Are the spirits different aspects of the shaman’s nature? Or perhaps the helper in the mouth is unrevealed, a creature of the dark, and the moon-like one on the forehead is a creature of light? At the point portrayed in the mask, they do not seem at odds, so perhaps they are opposites needed for balance and insight. Whatever the case, a moment of magic and transition is depicted.

The awe of the moment is heightened by the design of the mask. Tall, thin masks are common in the northern tradition, but in this case, the physical dimensions suggest a lean asceticism that seems fitting for a shaman. This asceticism is heightened by the high cheekbones and the deepness of the eye sockets near the nose, which suggest that the shaman might have been fasting. The black eyebrows reinforce this sense of gauntness, especially in a bright light that emphasizes the cheekbones and eye sockets.

At the same time, the mask carries a hint of menace or pain. Especially from a distance, the hands of the spirit in the mouth suggest fangs. Similarly, the unusually bright red used in the mask leave a half-unconscious impression of blood, as though the shaman’s trance is accompanied by a nosebleed and his biting of his own lip. Or perhaps the redness of the lips suggests that the shaman is giving a sort of birth to the spirit clinging to his lips. The suggestions are understated – there are no blatant riverlets of blood trickling from the nostrils or down the chin – but they are only more effective for being subtle.

And always the grain, which Wilson has carefully matched to the contours of the face, stands out, suggesting a movement or fluidity just below the skin. Influenced by his teachers at the Fred Diesing School, Wilson has always shown an awareness of the grain as a finishing detail, but here that awareness is not just a reflection of technical skill, but also an addition to the design.

When this mask first went on the market, I missed the chance to buy it, and cursed my slowness to make a decision. Luckily for me, the first owner changed their mind, and I was able to buy it after all. The more I study “Shaman and His Helpers,” the more I think it is Wilson’s best mask to date. At the same time, knowing that he is a constant carver and likely to have decades to continue his learning of his craft, I can’t wait to see what levels he will reach next.

shaman-and-helpers

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