At the Audain Art Museum until June 11
Speaking in the documentary film Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters, the esteemed Kwakwaka’wakw artist mused on the enduring importance of the cedar tree to his people. Dick, who died last year at the age of 61, also considered the sense of spiritual connection he experienced when he carved a block of wood taken from an ancient cedar. Early on, the understanding came to him that what he was making—a mask, perhaps—was an ongoing part of the tree’s life. As form emerged through his carving, he realized that “Something else was making this all happen. It wasn’t me—I was just part of it.” Then he added, “This art form is ceremonial… It’s given to us as a gift of the Creator.”
An excerpt from the film is playing at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, a moving complement to the museum’s retrospective exhibition Beau Dick: Revolutionary Spirit. Dick had a larger-than-life presence, reflected in the impressive scale of some of his later depictions of Kwakwaka’wakw entities and elements, such as his Wind Mask, a work both subtle and powerful, made in 2016 and some four-and-a-half feet in height. Yet, in the film, Dick speaks softly and gently, almost reverently, in keeping, it seems, with the reverence he felt not only for his cultural heritage, but for all life. A sense prevailing throughout the show is that his works emanate the energy and commitment of the man who made them. Still, it isn’t all seriousness and solemn respect here. Woven into Dick’s art are strands of Trickster-like humour and bawdiness: a skeletal Winalagalis puppet with an erect penis and dangling testicles; a slyly named grouping of four painted deer skins; a Killer Whale headdress with a plastic action figure standing on its back.
Curated by the AAM’s Darrin Martens and the artist’s daughter Linnea Dick, Revolutionary Spirit celebrates a man who was much more than an artist. To his creative persona, add hereditary chief and community leader, teacher and mentor, political and cultural activist, storyteller and ceremonialist. The big and ambitious show surveys his career across some four decades, from a leather purse carved and painted with a Sisiutl design to dance masks produced not long before his death. It outlines the unbroken line of Kwakwaka’wakw carvers who taught and influenced him; reveals his interest in mastering styles outside his particular cultural heritage; gives examples of the artists he studied and collaborated with; and highlights younger artists who were mentored by him. It also points out some of the themes and characters to which he kept returning, such as the bloody-lipped Dzunukwa, the Wild Woman of the Woods, and the ghostly Bukwus, who captures the souls of the drowned.
Dick died unexpectedly in March 2017, just before his art’s international debut at Documenta 14 in Athens, Greece. An entire gallery is given over to Undersea Kingdom, the cycle of 18 masks exhibited there, which tell the story of Yo’lakwame, his adventures in the underworld, and his travels on the back of a supernatural whale. Imbued with environmental as well as cultural meaning, most of the lively and characterful masks on view had been or were intended to be danced, although a couple of them, such as a big, red Sculpin, were designed to be hung on the wall. Their diverse display here exemplifies Dick’s ability to create ceremonial works for use by his own nation and more “secular” art meant for exhibition and sale.
This dual approach to art-making is evident throughout the show, with works such as his impressive Hamatsa dance masks, executed in more “traditional” Kwakwaka’wakw scale, style, and palette, and some of his Dzunukwa and Bukwus masks, again, monumental in size and bearing Dick’s particular and innovative way of working. His carving here is often subtly modulated, his paint application is matte and his colours muted, often ranging through blacks, greys, and whites. The pigments appear to have been sparely applied and then carefully rubbed or sanded down, giving them the patina of old age.
Beau Dick: Revolutionary Spirit is a moving tribute to a beloved artist and multifaceted human being. It ably demonstrates the wonders he realized from the gift bestowed upon him by his Creator.