The Globe and MailMonday, July 20, 2009 — Sarah Milroy
Showcasing old languages and
inventing new ones
The best works in an exhibit of Northwest Coast first-nations art either draw on historical cultural influences or inject contemporary objects and ideas into those traditions, writes Sarah Milroy
Artistic influence can be a tricky thing. It can invigorate and challenge, provoking an artist to take a stand and be counted against the precedent of his or her forbearers. Or it can insinuate itself into an artist's vocabulary, sapping independence and leaving a cloying residue of nostalgia.
Challenging Traditions, the McMichael Canadian Collection's summer show of new Northwest Coast art, provides a platform for thinking about this phenomenon, as readily observable in the world of contemporary international painting, sculpture and installation art as it is in the art of the first nations. Organized by Ian Thom of the Vancouver Art Gallery for the McMichael, the show offers a rare chance to survey recent work by 40 living artists from many Northwest Coast first nations, who are feted in a beautiful and informative catalogue filled with their stories.
There are some problems, though. Overall, the list of artists is solid, including all the main players on the scene today, but there are a few notable absences - like Brian Jungen, an artist of part Dane-zaa ancestry who is internationally known for his sculptural assemblages of consumer products (masks made from dismembered Nike sneakers, totem poles fashioned from golf bags). It's hard to imagine an artist who more perfectly fits the curatorial bill. As well, some of the artists appear not to be represented by their best work, or are under-represented (in the case of Dempsey Bob or brothers Robert and Reg Davidson). Arguably the list should have been tightened to allow a little more depth for key careers.
Still, the show serves well as a critical laboratory for looking at the question of heritage and how it plays itself out, and it demonstrates the following lesson: When working with tradition it's important to pursue one of two options. Stay with it, or blow it up.
The artists who come off the strongest are either those who emulate the historical precedent most reverently, or those who take the language and run with it. It's the middle ground where things get muddy and kitsch creeps in.
At the McMichael, the curators are presenting a small companion exhibition of historic Northwest Coast art from the museum's collection - masks that, in some cases, date back centuries. The effect is clarifying; this is the standard that today's artists must meet. In the best of these old pieces - like the wonderfully wise-seeming Heiltsuk raven mask from the 1890s, or the frisky Tsimshian wolf mask from a decade earlier - two factors are consistent: an extraordinary density of design (powerful shapes springing with expressive dynamism), and a liveliness in the depiction of the animal/spirit world. Facial expressions, in the best Northwest Coast carvings, have an intensity that is ferocious, a fearsome, joyous vitality tinged with mischief. The historic masks on display are dramatic, but in a formally concise, elegant way. There's nothing overblown or phony about the emotion they express, and the artist's detailed observation of the natural world is clear to see.
Several works in Challenging Traditions pack a comparable one-two punch, like Wayne Alfred's Oystercatcher Rattle from 1999. A ceremonial rattle in the traditional style, its principal volume takes the form of a svelte, red-billed seabird, carrying a bear and two humans figures on its back, its pose and eyes suggesting a keen alertness.
Dempsey Bob, who was a student of the great Haida carver Freda Diesing, is one of the Northwest Coast's most respected artists. Of both Tahltan and Tlingit ancestry, he makes works that hold their own against the best from the past, emanating the same unnerving, rascally spirit. In this show, we have just one carving - Frog's World (2006) - but it packs a punch: a mini totem of tightly-stacked human and frog forms. Like most of the artists here, Dempsey Bob experienced the irony of learning about his own culture by studying Northwest Coast objects in the museums of the white world, from Canada to France, Britain and Spain (where many of the major ethnographic collections landed in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries) or in the pages of Bill Holm's classic 1965 work of cultural anthropology Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form, but he has put the lessons learned there to glowing good use.
Other traditional forms of artistic expression are also honoured here, like the micro-fine spruce root weavings of Isabel Rorick, or the silver gilt Raven Bowl by Jim Hart (a dazzling remake of a historic wooden bowl from the collection of the Vancouver Museum), or the work of William White, a fixture in the Skidegate art community who has made it his life's work to transmit the textile weaving techniques he learned at the knee of his aunt and other female elders. (At last count he claims to have taught more than a hundred people an art form once thought to be dying.) His wool and cedar-bark ceremonial Chilkat blanket, titled The Raven Dances with the Frog (2004), is a work in the classic style, challenging the past by seeing tradition, and matching it stitch for stitch.
There are a number of artists in the show, though, who pursue traditional ways without the gifts of the earlier masters, and their works fall short, seeming either blandly decorative (like the glass vessels of Preston Singletary, the masks of Joe David, the cedar box by John Marston, or the abstract sculptural works of Susan Point), or garish and overblown, like the masks of Glenn Tallio and the enormous head of the ferocious Dzunukwa, by Beau Dick. These look back without having something new to say, and, for all their histrionics, they're strangely vacuous in affect.
Such is clearly not the case in the work of this exhibition's convention-busters, like Sonny Assu, whose work Coke-Salish, from his Urban Totem Series (2006), mimics the look of a commercial Coca-Cola sign. Enjoy Coast Salish Territory, it reads, the letters spelled out in the distinctive curvilinear white script against a scarlet background. Assu, like Brian Jungen, suggests that Northwest Coast art and culture have become a brand instrumental in selling B.C. tourism to the world. Mischief here takes on another material form, but the trickster vibe is much the same.
Laurence Paul Yuxweluptun also works way outside the box of tradition, with similarly caustic humour. His brilliantly Technicolour Portrait of a Residential School Child (2005) is a head and shoulders portrait of a youth. An unruly black mane of hair crowns his head, and he sports a golden halo, the residue of his Christian indoctrination. Yuxweluptun paints the facial features, though, in the traditional, densely compacted ovoid and U-forms of Northwest Coast art. It's a seamless hybrid of aboriginal and Christian iconography, uncomfortably co-joined.
Marianne Nicholson's Bax'wana'tsi: the Container for Souls (2006) also puts traditional decorative iconography to new use. An etched glass box covered with traditional formline designs, it is illuminated from within to cast its shadows on the surrounding walls of the gallery. Two images affixed to the surface of the box are also projected, archival photographs of the artist's Kwakwaka'wakw family.
The art of the Northwest Coast has always been about expressing clan lineage and family stories. Nicholson has just invented a new language for doing so.
Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast continues at the McMichael Canadian Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., until Sept. 20.