In his new exhibit at the Fazakas Gallery, Haida artist Corey Bulpitt has created his own, deeply meaningful rendition of American pop art's iconic LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana. Bright red and made of powder-coated aluminum, it stacks the famous serif L and the O on top of the V and E--but look closely at the tilted O and you'll see it's a Northwest Coast formline salmon head.
It was an idea Bulpitt had floating in his mind for years, but recent events—everything from Wet'suwet'en protests to high-profile acts of police violence against Indigenous people—made him realize it had a timely resonance.
"There was an incredible amount of racism from Canadians—suddenly people are trying to run people over," the artist tells the Straight. "Culturally, with what's happening now, I don't feel like we're treated like human beings yet; humans get a lot more dignity and talk about actual historical damage that gets caused. The world's gone to war for other races going through different things, whereas we get dumped on, and the police are against us....It felt like it was a time to bring that piece out to love everyone, but also part of loving everyone is loving nature."
Of the salmon O, he explains: "That's what feeds the Northwest Coast and all the living creatures—it symbolizes the Northwest Coast people to me and our need to share the environment as one. We're not separate from animals and the environment, we're part of it—and that's something that seems lost in modern society."
After years of immersing himself in DJing, MCing, breaking, and graffiti art, Bulpitt, whose great-great-grandfather was the renowned artist Charles Edenshaw, returned to Haida Gwaii at 20 for a four-year apprenticeship under master carver Christian White. Later, he worked with late master carver Chief Beau Dick, whose art sits alongside Bulpitt's pieces here, and serves as an inspiration for many of the form-fusing, thought-provoking creations on view in Supernova, the online exhibit you can tour via fazakasgallery.com/.
Among Dick's works here are The Ghost Con-fined to the Chair, a haunting assemblage that features a skull-like ghost mask, a woven cedar rose, and a copy of the Indian Act, all placed on a red vinyl chair that comes from an Alert Bay residential school.
"Beau was pretty progressive, too. In his later years he was making a few more statement pieces, like the residential-school chair. That was an ifnluence on me to explore." says Bulpitt, who drew many of Dick's items from his own treasured collection of his mentor's works.
With that inspiration, Bulpitt adds he feels his work is evolving as his career progresses. "At first you're trying to make money to make rent and you can't afford to make the things that may not be able to sell, but now I've gotten to the point where I can do the things I want to do," he says.
Bulpitt has created his own, much more humour-inflected assemblage in Hometown Hero (Canuck the Crow), a 2020 work that finds a Haida-style rendition of the bird that made Vancouver headlines by riding the Skytrain, frequenting the PNE, and even lifting crime-scene evidence, perched atop a metal trash bin, a carved, cedar knife clutched in his beak. The sticker on the side of the garbage can? "Welcome to East Van."
In Supernova, Bulpitt boldly mixes the urban and contemporary with his traditional training—perhaps most strikingly in MF Doom Mask, his red carved version of the gladiator-meets-Doctor Doom-style metal mask worn by the rap icon. Bulpitt integrates the artist's story with his own, using cedar as the material and placing abalone in the centre of the mask.
A lifelong music fan, Bulpit explains that MF Doom plays with ideas of alter egos—and, inescapably, with the new mask-wearing culture of the COVID age. "Everyone's wearing masks—though the Doom one didn't really cover the necessary parts," he adds with a laugh. "He had a ruby in one of the rendiitions of his mask, and abalone is one of our prized things on the coast."
You''l see many more sides to Bulpitt on display in Supernova. Reclaimed Spaces, a big graffiti diptych on birch panel brings his mural work, and some of its more political activism, into the gallery setting. Spray-painted words like “No Justice on Stolen Land” and “No More Stolen Sisters" play with larger ideas of land claims in the city and beyond.
And with Pride Week upon us, Bulpitt's Rainbow Pole makes an inspiring bookend to the LOVE sculpture in the Fazakas Gallery windows. As he does with his unmistakable murals in the city, the artist likes to provoke thought, but he also spreads messages of inclusion and acceptance—at a time when we may need it most—whether he's wielding carving knives or spray-paint cans.