Carl Beam retrospective speaks to both the particular and the universal

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At the UBC Museum of Anthropology until May 29

Carl Beam’s Anishinabe family name, Migwans, derives from a word meaning “bird” or “feather”—and birds, wings, and feathers are recurring symbols in the often soaring work of this late artist. Born in 1943 in West Bay (M’Chigeeng) on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, to an Anishinabe mother and an American father, Beam was raised mostly by his maternal grandparents. He attended a residential school for a few years during the 1950s before busting out into the wider world, finding his way to an immensely creative life, and then returning to the place of his birth.

As is evident in this retrospective exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Canada, Beam’s work speaks to both the particular and the universal. His layered imagery, realized in paintings, prints, large-scale constructions, installations, and hand-built ceramics, draws references from art and science, pop culture and politics, history and contemporary life. Ancient Egyptian guardian figures, medieval Crucifixion scenes, ethnographic photographs, stream-of-consciousness text, and Zen Buddhist koans all contend for our attention in his art.

In his groundbreaking 1985 painting on Plexiglas, The North American Iceberg, for instance, Beam has juxtaposed 19th-century photos of bare-breasted aboriginal women with mugshot-like self-portraits, media images of space exploration and the assassination of Anwar Sadat, a thumbnail biography of Geronimo, stencilled passages of poetic or enigmatic text, and splashes, swipes, and drips of acrylic paint. Without dictating any single reading, Beam presents us with different styles and systems of representation and the violence inherent in them. This work is a history painting in which we are all implicated.

Carl Beam: The Poetics of Being commemorates an influential individual who dismantled many of the barriers surrounding contemporary First Nations art. One of those barriers concerned that very categorization: Beam disliked being pigeonholed as a “native” or “aboriginal” artist. As curator Greg Hill writes in the exhibition catalogue, Beam launched his career in the 1970s, when Norval Morrisseau’s brand of highly stylized, myth-based paintings and prints dominated thinking about what “Eastern Woodlands” art should look like. It was a style Beam rejected as being too limiting, incapable of delivering his complexly interwoven themes and ideas.

Instead, he borrowed methods from American pop artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, including the use of photo-transfers and other print techniques to layer and juxtapose found imagery, sometimes in combination with actual objects. Exorcism includes arrows, hatchets, and barbed wire along with two-dimensional depictions of people, ravens, and crows borrowed from diverse sources. Whatever their origins, all seem to speak to loss—to war or death or the passage to the afterlife.

A trio of ghostly figures here is derived from a historic photograph of three unidentified aboriginal people, wearing western dress and standing at a gravesite. As he did with many of his images and motifs, Beam used these figures over and over again in his art: they trouble the line colonialism drew between cultural identity and survival. As Hill describes, meaning in Beam’s art is “cumulative, so that images gather context as they appear and reappear.”

Beam also pursued a ceramic practice that drew heavily from indigenous pottery traditions of the American Southwest. To his hand-built plates and vessels, however, he began to apply many of the same images that appear in his paintings. Among them are depictions of Sitting Bull, Anne Frank, silhouetted shaman figures evocative of ancient rock art, and Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential photographs of a running elk.

Over his career, Beam’s themes included different approaches to knowledge and spirituality, the abuses of science, the consequences of colonialism, our alienation from the natural world, and the cult of celebrity. Throughout his shifting compass, however, his work persuades us that we are all connected. “I play a game of dreaming ourselves as each other,” Beam once said. “In this we find out that we’re all basically human.”

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