Ancient and new blur in Continuum
Continuum: Vision and Creativity on the Northwest Coast
At the Bill Reid Gallery until January 31, 2010
Continuum is a small yet ambitious show, striving to find a voice within both modern-day art production and eons-old First Nations culture. Featuring new work by 23 emerging and mid-career aboriginal artists from Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington state, the exhibition is at unfortunate odds with its temporary location. It is installed in the chopped-up galleries and amid the competing fixtures and permanent displays of the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art.
Subtitled Vision and Creativity on the Northwest Coast, Continuum was organized by the gallery with consulting curator Mique’l Icesis Askren, a doctoral student at UBC. Her premise, as explained in an introductory panel, is “to challenge the dialogue around Northwest Coast art to go beyond the false dichotomies of ”˜traditional’ and ”˜contemporary’, which continue to plague the public reception of artistic production”.
Despite Askren’s articulate thesis, there’s not much new to be seen or argued here. Earlier shows at the Vancouver Art Gallery and UBC Museum of Anthropology, for example, have well demonstrated the continuity between past and present in Northwest Coast art, as well as the striking innovation and political commentary that many young artists are capable of. Still, it is worthwhile to note, as exhibition coordinator Petra Watson does in the catalogue, “the complexity of the terms of exchange” between historic and contemporary cultural practice.
The most provocative work on view is Nicholas Galanin’s Raven and the First Immigrants, a crude wooden sculpture based on Bill Reid’s iconic Raven and the First Men. As Galanin explains in his artist’s statement, he outsourced the carving to a chainsaw artist, striking a number of critical chords. These include the threats globalization poses to indigenous cultures, the debasement of Northwest Coast art through marketing to tourists and non-Native collectors, and the ongoing displacement of cultural values. All are themes that Brian Jungen has been articulating for the past decade.
The rest of Continuum ranges from the smart and arresting to the dull and mediocre. Among the most impressive is Philip Gray’s Becoming Tsimshian, a beautiful and finely worked cedar mask that is accompanied by a mesmerizing stop-motion animation video of the stages in its creation. Equally impressive is Jay Simeon’s Volcano Woman, a silver-backed pendant in argillite with inlays of abalone shell and mastodon ivory. Telling the Haida story of the ancestral entity Djila’qons, this miniature sculpture is exquisite.
Teri Rofkar’s merino-wool Continuum Robe, with its abstract designs inspired by Tsimshian basketry, handsomely demonstrates a commitment to honour older weavers and to reexamine the present-day impact of historical events. Marianne Nicolson’s fine mixed-media painting Tunic for a Noblewoman commemorates her grandmother and other strong and wise elders, and reflects on traditions lost and regained. Sadly, Nicolson’s art suffers badly from its placement, tucked into a corner beside a big, built-in podium that has no place in the middle of an art gallery.
The awkward positioning of work by one of this region’s most thoughtful and accomplished artists speaks to some of the obstacles the gallery must overcome to establish a credible local presence for its exhibitions.