The Canadian Art Database

John K. Grande

Carl Beam: Dissolving Time

From Balance: Art and Nature, Black Rose Books, Montréal, 1994.
New, updated edition now available from
[ 4,013 words ]

'Perhaps if they'd stolen your land, your culture and your spirit, you'd paint a different picture of history too,' announced the Canadian Museum of Civilization's brazen advertisement for Indigena, one of a spate of shows featuring contemporary Canadian native art held in 1992 including the National Gallery's Land, Spirit, Power, Pierre-Léon Tétreault's New Territories: 350-500 Years After in Montréal, and Carl Beam's The Columbus Boat at The Power Plant in Toronto. If redressing five hundred years of cultural oppression and colonial exploitation has always been something of a delicate matter for ethnographers, it was an about-face for the Canadian art establishment.

As recently as 1986, when the National Gallery of Canada decided to purchase Carl Beam's North American Iceberg, (1985) it was the only native work of art (aside from a small group of Inuit prints and sculptures assembled in the fifties and sixties), to have been put in the gallery's collection since the acquisition of a northwest coast Argillite pole in 1927. (1)  Emily Carr's paintings of disappearing totems and villages had been selected that same year by Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery, for a major exhibition of west coast art. The real stuff, native-produced art, was relegated to curio collectors or destined for storage in the Smithsonian, the Museum of Man, or further afield at the Palais de Trocadero in Paris or the Ethnology Museum in Vienna.

North American Iceberg was Beam's caustic comment on the Art Gallery of Ontario's 1985 blockbuster show, The European Iceberg. Theoretical and cultural stereotypes were imported from Europe via renowned German and Italian artists of the trans-avant-garde — artists who could afford to cast aspersions on the museum and gallery institution, considering them ideologically and historically hamstrung. At the same time, Carl Beam, like most of Canada's younger generation of native artists, was still largely unrecognized — relegated to bush-league regional shows. Some years earlier, his graphic works were rejected by the McMichael Collection in Kleinberg (a 'family gallery') because one of them contained a rude word. On the National Gallery purchase of his work in 1986, Beam later commented:

I realize that when they bought my work it wasn't from Carl the artist but from Carl the Indian. At the time, I felt honoured, but now I know that I was used politically — Indian art that's made as Indian is racially motivated, and I just can't do that. My work is not made for Indian people but for thinking people. In the global and evolutionary scheme, the difference between humans is negligible. (2) 

At the time of its purchase in 1986, Diana Nemiroff, co-curator of the 1992 Land, Spirit, Power show, referred to North American Iceberg as, 'a reminder of cultural relativity, of the cyclical and inevitable nature of change, and an affirmation of the visionary power of the artist.' (3) 

The prices themselves reflect another story. North American Iceberg was bought by the National Gallery of Canada for $14,000, while Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire (1967) sold for $1.8 million in 1989. So-called primitive art effortlessly bridged the gap between abstract principle and environmental reality, and yet this was where Newman drew a lot of his inspirational fire. In a catalogue preface to a show of northwest coast Kwagiulth art at New York's Betty Parsons Gallery in 1946, Newman called the use of the geometrical shape in Cubist and post-Cubist painting 'a formal abstraction of visual fact.' In northwest-coast native painting the same shape was referred to as a 'living thing.' (4)  While abstract expressionists were 'freeing [themselves] of the impudence of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting,' (5)  they still had the arrogance of an effete, formalist vision of art on their side. If anyone had dared to consult natives to ask their thoughts on Voice of Fire, they probably would have called the painting a fetish object, little more, nothing less. It was what their own ephemeral creations had been for millennia.

Birth of a modern

Carl Beam was born in West Bay on Manitoulin Island in 1943, to an Ojibway mother. His father, whom he never met, was of European descent. At an early age, Carl Beam went to a Catholic boarding school for native children. He held various labouring jobs: on the Bloor St. subway tunnels in Toronto, as a millwright's assistant in Wawa, as a hand in a sawmill, and in logging in British Columbia. His formal studies began at the Kootenay School of Art in 1971. He later transferred to the University of Victoria in 1973 to study with Donald Harvey, Mowry Baden, Roland Brener, Pat Martin Bates and John Dobreiner, finally completing his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1976. In 1978, after walking out of a University of Alberta MFA program after disagreements over the nature of his thesis on native art, he returned back east with his family.

The Woodland School of native painting, initiated by Norval Morrisseau, a self-taught artist and master of colour and form, was in full bloom at this time. Morriseau's images come to him in what he calls 'dream visits from the astral plane.' He considers painting to be therapy for both painter and viewer. His importance as the father of contemporary Canadian native art is unquestionable. Like his grandfather before him he considers himself to be a shaman in the Ojibway tradition. For a contemporary Ojibway artist such as Carl Beam, 'It's a complicated issue. If we accept the notion of "market", then I've got nothing to say. But art must be relevant and ongoing and I find that particular school [Woodland] allows very little room for personal creativity.' (6)  Beam's generation of native artists has run the gauntlet of art school and university training and emerged holistically intact, but well versed in the stone-washed formalities of postmodernism. Carl Beam carries a new set of cultural variables into the fray.

In 1978, while living in Sault Ste. Marie, Beam made contact with other native artists including the Manitoulin Island painters Don Ense and John Laford and produced a wide range of experimental prints, collages, watercolours and constructions. While his works referred to native mythology, they dealt with universal themes in a thoroughly modern way. They were culturally distant from Norval Morrisseau's accepted 'Indian formula. Their non-native use of contemporary imagery and notations mystified collectors of native art just as collectors of vanguard modernist art had not yet accepted that native could indeed be contemporary. In Inter-Stellar Village Communion (1980), a cosmic map divided into computer-like grids with stencilled letterings read 'East Longitude (Degrees) and Latitude (Degrees)' along its borders, while a native's face haunted one of the boxes within. New Medicine (1979), with its abstract 'quotational' form and its feather imprints below (a representation of the real that looks abstract), is more perplexing because it uses the latest language in modern art to poke fun at the formulaic niceties of Western avant-gardism, like a laconic joke made by an outsider looking in. Other works from this period show a bird in flight, its internal anatomy exposed, skulls and bones of animals integrated into painted constructions, and hand designs recreated to resemble those in cave paintings.

Before moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1980, in part to escape the limitations (some self-imposed) on native artists in Canada, Beam painted a watercolour titled Self Portrait in My Christian Dior Bathing Suit (1978-80), a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the artist as naked savage / noble warrior. As a caricature of the native in warrior stance, vulnerable yet defiant in designer underwear, the work is a sardonic inquisition into the native artist's quandary — caught in the spin-dry cycle of generic consumer culture — as seen from both sides. The shaman is unmasked by fashion, the fashion seeker is unmasked by cultural alienation. Beam has long grappled with questions of identity in an age where the arms race keeps the jobs back home while people are blown to bits in the third world.

If you have your own face next to a rocket, if you have your own face next to the Sadat assassination, this, to me, implies that one...has to have personal responsibility for world events. You have to respond personally. Everybody eventually has to learn how to respond or to filter what's happening through their own senses. (7) 

In The Malaise of Modernity, McGill political science professor Charles Taylor states:

In pre-modern times, people didn't speak of "identity" and "recognition," not because people didn't have (what we call) identities or because they didn't depend on recognition but rather because these were too unproblematic to be thematized as such. (8) 

Does a native artist really worry about 'identity' and 'recognition' after millennia of cultural neglect? It depends on what one's notions of time and the meaning of history are. As Beam stated during a panel discussion in Vancouver in 1989:

This is totem pole country. For a Native person, if you raised a pole on one of the islands, it's an event itself. It is historical in the sense that it means something to the community. They don't remember it as: This pole was erected in 1979. They have no idea when it was raised. Their relationship to history is totally different...if you just take all the forms in the totem pole — however true and right they may be, anthropologically speaking, the whole point is that the Native people see it in a different context — a monument raised in time. It's not about structure and forms — form and structure are secondary to the definition of a thing being raised in time. If you don't take that into account, and try to learn from that kind of information, you can never understand anything foreign; you are only looking through the standard eye glasses of European tradition. If you just introduce the idea of time, real history and what's important, they might just drop off. (9) 

Healing the wounds of the past

Spending time in New Mexico allowed Carl and his wife Ann to investigate the ancient Anasazi earthenware style and techniques of the Pueblo Indians. They later utilized these techniques to create pottery with Ojibway motifs and designs using images of animal skulls, eagles and native peoples, as well as bowls with illustrated portraits of Anne Frank and the Statue of Liberty. Dr. J.J. Brody, then curator at the Maxwell Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico, wrote of Ann and Carl Beam's first solo show there:

Smaller, more carefully made, more refined and more highly finished than the Anasazi many respects these pots are more like easel paintings than crafted objects and for that reason raise questions about our categories of fine arts, craft arts and ethnic arts. (10) 

The interiors of the Beam's unglazed, brownish pottery bowls — fired with red cedar to give a reddish colour and rough pebblish texture — are sculptural spaces decorated in relation to their inner dimensionality. In a later show titled Ascending Culture (1986), in Hull, Beam applied his ceramic expertise to a different purpose. A series of flat square glazed plates, formatted like paintings, transposed photo imagery onto clay in order to explore textural and colour contrasts. One of the plates juxtaposed images of Pope John Paul II, military tanks and helicopters, the stencilled number 677, a blown-up playing card of a queen and handwritten autobiographical notations.

The Artist with Some of His Concerns (1983), one of Beam's watercolours from trying times in the early eighties, deals with a different kind of cultural vivisection, one that is not an equation at all. The work was comprised of a self-portrait and two views of an eagle partially obscured by a grid, as well as a painted recreation of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's assassination taken from stop-action news photos, and studies of a horse's head below. The work declares the act of representation to be an exercise in quantification. A topographic measurement of visual vocabulary is captured in time, fitting into a repertoire of reactive meaning. The truisms of technoculture are as clichéd as they are reprehensible — recreated, transposed and transmitted for posterity, not eternity. Like a wrecker's ball in a hall of mirrors, Beam's curious composite images look decontextualized, but suggest another level of cultural permanence — of spiritually flying through time with nature, not against it. You're never sure what's going to happen next.

In the summer of 1992, Beam hung eighteen huge banners titled Colours of Humanity from Toronto's Skydome stadium. These words accompanied the piece: 'Ojibwe belief holds that four colours (black, red, white and yellow) represent all peoples of the earth. These races exist within a circle forming a powerful spiritual union...We are all united.' (11)  At the same time The Power Plant was presenting part of Beam's Columbus Project, a selection of works titled The Columbus Boat. This work was part of his ongoing reevaluation of history — both the white man's and the native's, an open search for a less qualified, universal language of self-realization. In phase one of The Columbus Project (1989), exhibited at Artspace and the Art Gallery of Peterborough, 'The Need to Explain Everything' was painted in large letters on top of a blank canvas. The paintbrush that hung from one corner of the piece referred to the Romantic landscape painter's legacy, the representation of nature as an aesthetic commodity. In Beam's own words:

I did a painting in school — all it had on it was some loose painting, and a three-foot metal ruler all bent up on it — tied up on top with a little ball of cloth dipped in paint tied onto it, and I swung it back and forth on the painting. It was a little crippled yardstick painting. I just wrote on it: THE NEED TO EXPLAIN, and that was the whole one-liner painting. Somebody looked at it and he was really driven crazy. He said: "What are you trying to do? What you are saying here is that the need to explain is really a redundant aspect of our being here. The way it looks — without saying good or bad — is that you are trying to pre-empt the whole thinking process — explicating and explaining, books and charts and maps — all that investigative experience — is preempted in the painting." I said: "That's what you read into it. See, even now you're explaining. Where does your need to decipher my painting come from?" The truth of the painting, although it didn't solve anything, raised the question of how much explaining do we need, or how much explaining should I do? Or why am I doing it? (12) 

The twisted ruler covered with a ball of cloth suspended in the centre of Burying the Ruler was echoed in a video with the same title also presented at The Power Plant. The video was a record of Beam's visit to the Dominican Republic in 1992 to 'meet' the original native inhabitants, the Taino tribe of Hispanola, who became extinct fifty years after Columbus's visit due to starvation, genocide and slavery. The Burying the Ruler video and multimedia painting both portray Beam burying a ruler in the sands of the Dominican Republic near the first landing site of the first European colonizers. The act of burying the ruler was purely symbolic, an attempt to underline our culture's need to reason, measure, and quantify the world around us. By leaving the shape of the ritual wide open. Beam's intent was to heal the wounds of the past, emphasize the need to innovate, create new meanings, and find other ways of interpreting life.

Outside the entrance to The Power Plant's exhibit, Beam's Altar (1992) invited gallery-goers to attach available feathers to a twig with string and plant them in the sand-filled well, making a wish for the young people of the world — the future. Inside the Power Plant, a twenty-foot long replica of the hull and mast of the Santa Maria, built to one-fifth of scale, stood like an empty shell. Over forty mixed-media paintings and prints on the gallery walls spewed a profusion of images reproduced in photo emulsion on canvas — painted or drawn over, annotated, and condensed like information bits — creating an ahistorical rhetoric of image production. Escaping like so many live sardines out of a can. Beam's condensed and intensely personal imagery collapses and consumes our stereotypes of history, the legacy of Cartesian thinking. Superficially, the media images and objects Beam incorporates in his paintings owe some debt to Robert Rauschenberg's flatbed constructions from the fifties. Beam's hand-written autobiographical notations, curious numerological and alphabetical references recall Cy Twombly's works. Yet these styles are appropriated by Beam as composite elements we read in a broader context of cultural relativism and stylistic freedom.

Cyclical Temporal Adjustment (1992), a cropped and expanded portrait of Christopher Columbus (of whom no known likeness actually exists) depicts him, in his typically sympathetic Occidental guise, as European venture capitalist supreme. The picture's title, stencilled in above becomes just another visual design, no different than a native pictograph. A crucifixion scene from a painting by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) occupies the lower half of the painting, simultaneously representing the religious and political values Columbus exported with him to North America and the native initiation rite known as the piercing ceremony. Mantegna's painting becomes just another visual image among many and loses its iconographic significance.

Partially covered with drips, swaths and runs of paint, and with hand drawn vertical and horizontal lines, all the images and cultural artifacts Beam uses, both textual and visual, are given equal weight. Taken out of any natural chronological (historic), sequential (linear) or compositional (formalist) context, images of dramatic historical events (Hiroshima, Viet Cong shooting prisoners) co-exist alongside images of famous personages (Albert Einstein, Chief Sitting Bull, Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King), documents (Eadweard Muybridge's quasi-scientific photo studies of locomotion), reproductions of religious paintings, anomalous family and personal portraits, and other incongruous items such as images of Galapagos turtles, parking metres, bees, stop lights, hydrometers, and confetti-like pieces of a cut-up fifty dollar bill. Carl Beam's images are reproduced in photo-emulsion on canvas to become interchangeable anachronisms — postcolonial composites that particularize the contents of each image. They become information bits of visual imagery whose random selection and juxtaposition mimics the codes and methodologies of representation from which we derive a sense of historical permanence — but their symbolic meaning has been equalized in a way that collapses our conception of time and consumes our own stereotypes of media-related imagery.

Like a latter-day Paracelsus who persists in rendering all manner of imagery equal, Carl Beam seeks to invent a new epistemology that evokes the non-rational, spiritual side of experience. History becomes a synthetic composition — a paradigm of the values our ancestors brought with them to the New World that emphasizes only those established formal histories based on dualistic Cartesian mechanisms that quantify, compartmentalize, endlessly textualize, and document all manner of material. The synchronous visual legends in Beam's mixed-media works at The Power Plant see history from the other side, as a story like any other story open to a multiplicity of interpretations.

The images of adobe housing seen in Beam's paintings shown during Phase Two of The Columbus Project at Artspace in Peterborough in 1991 were not just additional data bits or information fragments from media overload. In early July 1992, Beam presented Look Ma No Mortgage!, Phase One of his Adobe Project at the Arnold Gottlieb Gallery in Toronto. Consisting of architectural blueprints and a few hand-made moulds and adobe bricks set on a table in the gallery, it was Beam's answer to the recession, an alternative model for a single-family dwelling built out of adobe using locally available materials: mud, clay and emulsifier. This kind of housing is now common in the southwestern United States. Prairie sod huts and a Victorian home near London, Ontario are examples of the use of adobe in the north during the latter part of the nineteenth century, however Beam is the first to revitalize interest in adobe for use in the north in recent times.

Since September 1992, Beam has been back in West Bay, Manitoulin Island with his family. By December 1993, he had constructed and fitted a large-scale custom-built home with multiple level contours out of five thousand adobe bricks at a total cost of $50,000. A smaller house could be built on the same principle for around $20,000. While the high-tech crowd would consider this a Luddite's dream, for Beam it is a low-tech reality. Not made of concrete or standard brick, but using materials from the site itself — a practical response to the rising cost of housing — adobe cut the standard cost of construction by fifty percent and uses seventy-five percent less virgin wood.

The London Regional Art & Historical Museum presented a further exhibition of the adobe project in 1993 titled Living in Mother Earth. The work included photo-documentation and plans of the house on Manitoulin Island, a video of the project in progress, and an installation of segments of Beam's adobe construction as well as ten new paintings. The show examined the relationship of housing debt to poverty by questioning the concept of the modern single-family dwelling and the purported aspirations it represents for suburban middle-class life in Western culture. During the autumn of 1994, the Beams have again been building a guest house on their Manitoulin property using an even lower-cost rammed earth building technique.

Carl Beam's struggle as a native artist has not just been a search for cultural recognition. It often has less to do with art and more to do with presences, real and imagined — the presence of two visions of the past in the present. The illusion of history that Beam has had to deal with is the white man's — as an outsider looking in. The distance between the past and present is less clearly distinguishable for the colonized than for the colonizer. Carl Beam's solution for Canadians seeking to find answers to our perennial questions of identity is a simple one. We must learn to dissolve our past conceptions of (historical) time based in the philosophical and cultural traditions of the 'discoverers,' which have marred our true sense of geographic and cultural identity and seek to understand that culture is a flexible system of eco-dependent interrelations. These are as vital to the survival of mainstream Canadian culture as they have always been to Canada's first inhabitants.

From Balance: Art and Nature, Black Rose Books, Montréal, 1994.
New, updated edition now available from

Text: © John K. Grande. All rights reserved.

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