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I think of Haisla artist John Wilson as primarily a mask carver, and certainly that is where most of his efforts have gone in the last few years. However, his prints show a certain talent for two-dimensional design as well, which is why I was pleased to pick up this abstract “Wolf.”

Most Northwest Coast Art is abstract to a greater or lesser extent, of course, in that it is highly stylized and uses a number of basic shapes not found in nature to achieve its effects. However, the sub-genre specifically referred to as abstract is less naturalistic than most. In an abstract piece, some of the distinguishing features of a subject are often missing or distorted and often only one or two remain. The figure is further distorted by the surface it is on. The end result is a figure far removed from the semi-naturalistic figures in the tradition – so much so that viewers either need the title or some familiarity with the art in order to know what is being depicted. These conditions open up possibilities for original self-expression that are often harder to find in semi-naturalistic figures.

All these generalities are true in “Wolf.” The bushy tail that is one of the defining characteristics of wolf figures (and often an opportunity for considerable ingenuity by artists) is squeezed into the rectangle of the figure below the jaw, so that at first you might mistake it for ornamentation. Only the short ears and perhaps the muzzle and teeth are left to identify the figure – and the muzzle and teeth might easily be a bear’s. Since the figure is turned sideways and presented upright, there is only one foot and a couple of claws, which increases the abstraction even further

What is left is mostly teeth and claws, creating an impression of fierceness, especially since the claws are outsized. This impression is strengthened further by the elaborateness of the eye with its tilt, as well as the red of the tail bisecting the image.

Technically, the print might be called a study in threes. Three parts of the wolf – the head, the tail, and the foot – are depicted. There are three black ovoids — the eye, foot and nostril – that frame the image, each with a slightly different shape as well as different interior decorations. In addition, three parallel lines –the tail itself, the bottom line of the heat and the top of the foot – cut across the picture. Three black lines form the foot, although only part of the two claws are parallel. In addition, the eye is made elaborate by three clusters of U-shapes, each with some variation of a T-shape inside it to thin it out. For variation, the patterns of three are sometimes broken, as in the red decorations around the eye, only two of which have a tripartite structure, but the grouping are enough to give the figure of “Wolf” a strong unity.

An especially interesting cluster of threes is the tail with its knick in the middle. It is minimalistically echoed in the thin red line beneath the claws, and in the mirror image that touches the ear on one side and the muzzle on the other.. I am not absolutely sure of Wilson’s intention, but the way that the top structure mirrors that of the tail suggests to me that it is part of the tail, so you have to imagine the tail wrapping around the wolf, stretching from the bottom of the image to the top behind the figure, where you can’t see it.

The formlines, too, are worth pointing out. For much of their lengths, they are a uniform thickness, and bend at almost the same angle. However, they are saved from being monotonous by their long, tapering ends, and surprisingly few other techniques. Instead, they create a sense of boldness that seems to fit with the ferocity of the wolf.

In fact, if I had to use one word for “Wolf,” that word would be “bold.” In a way, I regret that the print is so small, because “Wolf” is a design that almost demands to be blown up for a house-front or some other large-scale depiction.

(Note: Being a responsible blogger, I want to take this opportunity to strongly deny the rumor that the print is also available in a limited edition of one in pink and mauve. This alleged alternative version does not exist, and you should not ask the artist about it. Nor did you view it here if you are interrogated. Okay?.)


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