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
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
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
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
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.
The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files