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Robert Houle

The Emergence Of a New Aesthetic Tradition

From the catalogue for New Work by a New Generation
Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, University of Regina
July 9 ­ August 29, 1982)

[ 1,990 words ]

I was born a thousand years ago,
Born in a culture of bows and arrows,
But within the span of half a lifetime
I was flung across the ages
To the culture of the atom bomb —
And that is a flight far beyond
A flight to the moon!
— Chief Dan George

Today, there is an emergence of a new art by a new generation of young artists. These artists have the distinction of having come from two different aesthetic traditions: North American and Western European. The former is deeply rooted in tribal ritual and symbolism; while the latter is an irreversible influence committed to change and personal development. This new art is rich in imagery and form that is both traditional and contemporary in source. Also, it is innovative and sophisticated in style and technique.

While putting to use contemporary styles, techniques and modes, the artists in this exhibition are still very much involved in leaving visual documents of their personal heritage. Nowhere is this more evident than in the diversity of creative expression found in the show. One is treated with an expression full of secular, sensuous counterpoints and mystical, existential visions. Each artist is invariably and intimately involved in recording personal experiences determined by tribal culture. This leaves the artist to create works of art traditionally inspired, but expressed through modern concepts and techniques. To deny the legitimacy of this inspirational source would be like refusing the Renaissance its Greco-Roman heritage; and to treat the validity of this creative process with deliberate reserve would be sanctimonious.

The artists in this exhibition have managed, sometimes at great odds, to straddle two not always compatible cultures. Not only must they refute the false representation as wagon train raiders, but they must avoid the excuse for paternalistic support as well. Regrettably, their artistic outpouring is still regulated as a cultural continuum of an anthropological past. Such an intellectual approach only confines them as mere curiosities of a vanishing race whose art is a product of a fourth world often deemed highly insignificant by pontificating art historians.

This new generation of artists eloquently questions such short-sighted arguments through the seriousness and high quality of their work. The relegation of this new aesthetic to ethnological data by museums is to literally establish those cultural institutions as reservations of contemporary native art. Inevitably, the emergence of the artists, together with the understanding and use of the polemics of modern art, will lead to an appropriate environment, the art gallery.

The work in this exhibition is perhaps too varied in the treatment of sensibilities, too numerous in the technical applications of paint, and too complex in the emotional handling of imagery and form to arrive at a specific approach for viewing it. However, the viewer should not find it difficult to obtain a general impression, because the art content is really quite clear. The directness and spontaneity with which this clarity is provided in the exhibited paintings and sculpture should entertain the viewer emotionally and intellectually.

To look at them is to experience an artistic expression full of mystical and spiritual powers; sensuous and exotic impulses; humourous and satirical undercurrents. As visual recordings of human emotion and thought, they are undoubtedly beyond ethnic definition or racial reference.

Their universality raises issue with the pompous edicts of cultural potentates over cross-cultural references. To look at them is to have your eyes dazzled with colourful history and fascinating mythology.

Through knowledge acquired in art school, sometimes a dangerous minefield of assimilation and oblivion, these exhibiting artists are not only confident, but capable of expression in an acquired plastic language. They are able to emerge from studio experiences and practices as new aesthetic personages, and this often occurs through drastic transformation. Nonetheless, despite these metamorphoses, the traditional values associated and complemented with the inspirational source are still governed by a ritualistic will to uphold their highest uses of art.

Some American artists, in particular Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, have made cross-cultural references and therefore, found clues to the highest uses of art in North American Indian rituals. For example, Pollock wrote: 'On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk round it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting. This is akin to the method of the Indian sand painters of the West.' Barnett Newman wrote in an opening paragraph of an exhibition catalogue: 'It is becoming more and more apparent that, to understand modern art, one must have an appreciation of the primitive arts, for just as modern art stands as an island of revolt in the stream of Western European aesthetics, the many primitive art traditions stand apart as authentic aesthetic accomplishments that flourished without benefit of European history.'

In approaching this new aesthetic language, one should keep in mind Newman's sensitive observation and Pollock's perceptive analogy. It should also be appreciated that this language was made by artists whose aesthetic traditions are above all a synthesis of the above. To refer to these artists as transformed aesthetic personages may sound pretentious, but there really are very few art related analogies that are readily digested. One of the most important elements in this synthesis is that these contemporary artists have a willingness and an openness to play an active role in the development of their creative expression. This is clear in the evidence and presence of modern art influences in the exhibited works of art.

Indeed, it is reassuring to see that these native artists are committed to involvement in the polemics of modern art. For such a commitment is crucial to the reconstruction of cultural and spiritual values eroded by faceless bureaucracy and atheistic technology. It is an opportunity to regenerate pride to a segment of society too often subject to gross neglect and unfortunate indifference.

Meaning for these artists derives from living in the twentieth century, where painting ranges from realism to abstraction and sculpture varies from shamanism to assemblage. The handling of their chosen medium, whether it be oils, acrylics, water-colours or mixed-media, is consistent with their personal philosophies. This leaves individual expression, the ultimate creative power. Being modernists, they carry the privilege of appropriating bits of their traditional and contemporary cultures to form an amalgam strictly reflective of their own identity.

Their endeavour rests primarily upon two arguments: the first claims that, unlike traditional beadwork and quillwork, this new art has no utility but exists only for aesthetic contemplation; the second, that because of the universality of its forms and images, this new expression is trans-cultural, whereas non-art conforms to the cultural milieu from which it rises. Thus as art transcends the native culture, it can offer a critique of that culture, whereas traditional arts and crafts are non transcendental and can only represent the culture they are part of. When art is polarized, its promoters attempt to integrate it into culture, to normalize it, by stressing commercial values.

Undoubtedly, the emergence of these native artists with a modernism against a background of polarization has produced a body of work not readily marketable. This is probably due to the fact that its support and promotion are still largely tentative because the marketplace is not the domain of ex-perimental art works.

Part of the problem may also be because it is not a passive response to paternalism, but an independent art whose content is relevant to contemporary Indian and Inuit life. This hypothesis was first expounded by J. J. Brody in Indian Painters and White Patrons, 1971. His last remark was: 'Style selection is made in terms of subjective intent and once again the imperatives of content dictate formal appearance, only now content is determined by individuals rather than by any homogeneous tribal group. The death of Indian painting is accompanied by the birth of Indian Painters. '

Unfortunately, this has left the new artists with a reluctant patronage unable to un derstand the new work as a genuine indigenous expression of, for, and by Canadian, American and Mexican Indians. This exhibition will hopefully change the situation, by helping the public to see the presence of tribal imagery, symbolism and ritual.

Whether or not the work is a non-objective painting existing purely as an aesthetic object free of any ceremonial performance, there will be a presence of ritualistic will. In creative activity, this will is beyond rationality or system but within metaphysical understanding or spiritual and literal realities. Sometimes the painting as a physical object may turn out to be a paradigm upon which the senses become counterpoints in a pictorial space defined by colour, texture, form and line.

It is essential to see these paintings and sculptures as products of vision or enlightenment if one is to truly appreciate them as works of art transcending rationality into a language of magic and symbolism. For example, such visionary symbols as the circle reappear much as they once did in traditional North American Indian art. Nonetheless, whether the symbol of the circle appears in the Sioux sundances, the Hopi sand paintings, the Naskapi hunting mats, the Ojibway sacred scrolls, or in any of the exhibited works, it always points to the single most vital aspect of life — its ultimate wholeness.

A very wise shaman once observed that if a man is unaware of his sacred centre, that being a part of a mystic circle together with nature, then he is not really a man. The clarity of this vision, oneness with the environment, is fundamental to the metaphysical understanding of the mystery circle. To associate contemporary imagery and form with such mystical and existential visionary iconography is to reaffirm the notion that the creative process is guided by a ritualistic will.

The transformations experienced in the studio make the artist emerge as a new aesthetic personage. Thus, a new plastic language is created to transform these ex-periences and thoughts into works of art. The new language has the power to evoke the supernatural creatures found in the meditative formalism of Haida graphic art, to echo the incantations recorded with a secret code on a Potawatoni prescription stick, and to summon the animal spirits found in the fetish assemblages of shamanistic art. The language will have the power to translate animal skins and bones into wonderful transfigurations of cosmic dimensions, or everyday found objects into exquisite assemblages. The expression of the mystic power of an animal and the actual use of the parts of that animal go hand in hand. In a way, the endowment of natural objects with an aesthetic quality is not unlike the trans-formation of 'found' objects when placed in a specific cultural context such as an art gallery.

Other metamorphoses of this sort commonly take place through studio practice, during which time an original image or format will begin to appear, become unmistakable, and be affirmed through conscious emphasis on its peculiar features and through elimination of incidentals. In order to transform thought into an appearance, the action of the whole person is necessary to discover its equivalent in sign language. The new aesthetic is usually complemented by verbal statements that relate the new work to new aims. Besides being an instrument of innovation and radicalism, it synthesizes two different aesthetic traditions from which emerge new artists.

It was from a certain tradition that visionaries like Norval Morrisseau and Fritz Scholder developed and flourished. As innovators, their artistic achievements 'flung across the ages to the culture of the atom bomb ...' had a profound influence on contemporary native art in Canada and the United States.

To perceive the new generation of native artists as a symbol of revolt against existing conventions, or as a touchstone of tradition in search of new methods to express a new vision, is to reaffirm one of the most important aspects of native cultures, the capacity to harness revolutionary ideas into agents of change, revitalizing tradition.


From the catalogue for New Work by a New Generation
Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, University of Regina
July 9 ­ August 29, 1982)

Text: © Robert Houle. All rights reserved.


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