Kesu’: The Art and Life of Doug Cranmer is a full and fitting tribute

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Kesu’: The Art and Life of Doug Cranmer
At the Museum of Anthropology until September 3

Kesu’, meaning “wealth being carved”, was the Kwakwaka’wakw name bestowed upon Doug Cranmer when he had his first haircut, in 1927, at the age of 10 months. As he grew into adulthood, he was given other, high-ranking names, and he also eventually inherited his father’s chiefly name, Pal’nakwala Wakas, meaning “great river of overflowing wealth”.

Fittingly, there is an abundance of bold and distinctive carving—along with painting, printmaking, and drawing—on view in the Audain Gallery at the Museum of Anthropology. With its masks, rattles, bentwood boxes, serigraphs, painted panels, paddles, totem poles, house posts, and canoe, Kesu’: The Art and Life of Doug Cranmer is a full and fitting tribute to one of the Northwest Coast’s most distinguished artists. The first comprehensive retrospective of Cranmer’s work also serves as a memorial to his influence as a teacher and mentor, to his sense of humour, and to his determined individualism.

In both the show and its accompanying publication, Cranmer’s life, times, and character are thoroughly documented by MOA curator Jennifer Kramer. She has consulted many of his friends and colleagues, and their quotes are posted throughout the exhibition, along with photographs of Cranmer from infancy to old age, works by other artists who were influenced by him, and a shifting soundscape composed of interview fragments and the jazz music he enjoyed.

Cranmer, who was born in Alert Bay in 1927 and died there in 2006, fished and logged from an early age, and learned carving while serving as an assistant to Mungo Martin, the great keeper of Kwakwaka’wakw tradition. Cranmer worked with this esteemed elder and other colleagues on a totem-pole-restoration contract for the provincial museum in Victoria in 1955. He also worked with the renowned Haida artist Bill Reid on commissions for MOA at UBC’s Totem Park, from 1959 to 1961. Staying on in Vancouver until 1976, he established an international career, cofounded a commercial gallery of indigenous Northwest Coast art, experimented with form and medium, and evolved his—what? Art? Craft? Trade? Cranmer resisted cultural stereotypes, refused to be labelled, and denied, even, that he was an “artist” or “master carver”. Such terms, he apparently believed, would make him complacent. He also shot down attempts to glorify what he did for a living.

What he did, not at all complacently, was streamline, stretch, and enliven tradition. He eliminated some long-standing Kwakwaka’wakw forms that he felt encumbered his expression: some of his 1974 ceremonial masks, based on creatures of the Undersea Kingdom, for instance, are as bright, sleek, and slippery as the fish that inspired them. They’re characterful, too. Working on paper and fabric, Cranmer was an early explorer of silkscreen prints in the 1960s, a charming example being a burlap hanging with an almost mechanistic image of a bear, created in about 1963. In the 1970s, he created a series of innovative abstract paintings on mahogany panels. These playful and appealing works, such as his 1976 Killer Whales, humorously disrupt Northwest Coast graphic elements and rules of bilateral symmetry, yet retain a rhythmic flow of colour and formline.

There’s a lot of biographical material to digest in this anthropological exhibition, and it’s curious to imagine how a “high-art” museum or gallery would have handled Cranmer’s work. Art-museum retrospectives of contemporary white male artists rarely speak of their lives or personalities. This has something to do, it seems, with the way postmodern criticism deplores the cult of personality and seeks to detach the artist from his (although not so much from her) story.

One of the arguments of postmodernism—a way of thinking about art that, not incidentally, originates with white, western, male cultural theorists—is that reading an artist’s work biographically is too reductive. Still, the sense of otherness is perturbing in Kesu’, because anthropology was invented by white, western men, too. The Cranmer show reminds us that, irrespective of the art itself, the conditions of exhibition, curation, and criticism shift and change like fashion. These disciplines are immensely complicated by who writes the rules—when, where, and for whom.

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Fran Pullara
Fantastic.
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