Clouding Up Pure Vision: The Keewatin Spirit
Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina
BorderCrossings, Vol. 5 #3, May 1986.
[ 1,832 words ]
Pure Vision: The Keewatin Spirit, which opened in March at the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina and which will tour to four other Canadian cities over the next year, is a fine sculpture show. A large exhibition of approximately seventy pieces in stone and bone is presented in a direct and unencumbered way. It's a group show, the work of seven artists. As in most large shows, the quality is a little uneven, though generally high. It's regional work done over roughly the same period of time and accompanied by a large and expensively printed catalogue.
No problems. Well, actually there are problems, because the work is by seven Inuit artists from the Keewatin District of the Northwest Territories and no one knows if this is art or anthropology; if acculturation should be considered or overlooked; if the work stands only when taken out of its cultural context or looked at within it. No one, not even the curator.
Norman Zepp curated the show and wrote the catalogue essays. The major essay, 'Contemporary Inuit Art: Acculturation and Ethnicity', explains that acculturation has taken place, is evident in the work and shouldn't invalidate it. He quotes George Swinton, Nelson Graburn, Edmund Carpenter, and others whose opinions are divergent and contradictory: the work is authentic in its 'Eskimoness' and is evolving; it's no longer authentic and has become westernized; it's art of a universal quality and can stand with any. Zepp's position is equally unclear. How is he suggesting we look at the work? In his second essay he asserts that the work is non-narrative, reflecting personal and individual expression and therefore is more reflexively Inuit. Any cultural caveats imposed on the viewer are unnecessary. Placing art in context is helpful and enriches the looking, but sloppy work isn't better because its origins are exotic. Let's apply our vision to Pure Vision: The Keewatin Spirit and see what's there.
Of the seven artists in the show John Kavik's approach is the most individual. Man Wearing Goggles is a solid and substantial piece, the stone asserting its full weight. The hunter returns from the hunt, his success evidenced by the bear slung over his shoulder — man reducing the bear's size by being the victor. Here, for the moment in the northern man / nature seesaw, man is in the ascendancy. He's implacable, intractable. In contrast, Somersaulting Man shifts and flips, constantly anticipating movement (somersaulting being a shamanic symbol for transformation) and at the same time a resilient representation of the adaptability needed for survival.
Double Figure, two men facing away from each other and siamesed at the waist by a bar of stone, speaks of endless tension in a small and tidy sculptural gesture. His Mother and Child shows a woman as sturdy and reliable as you would want your mother to be. The drum-head, sun head shape is as successful and confident as any of Henry Moore's.
Luke Iksiktaaryuk's medium is antler and here the material appears to determine form and action. In Drum Dance 1973 the figures stand facing the drummer in a semi-circle resting on curved horns. They bend and nod in a movement appropriate to the dance, the dance determined by the horn anatomy.
In Family Group a father followed by a mother and children labour to the crest of an antler-horn hill, silhouetted against an imagined landscape, vertical, highly visible and vulnerable.
Interestingly, Lucy Tasseor, the only woman included in the show, uses the stone in its bulk and leaves it essentially unworked. Perhaps a feminine sense of delicacy directs her to impose her intent on the stone in the least aggressive and radical way. In any case, the blocks are left intact with the figures and detailing extruding from the stone.
Mother and Child 1970 is an abundant maternal figure embracing six little heads that protrude from her chest and belly. On one side of this large wedge-shaped woman is an incised igloo, her circumscribed life inscribed in stone. Head Cluster is a raw weight of stone with heads arranged along the top edge, the stone's surface only minimally worked. Cultural ties and constraints are less evident here. What is evident is the joy of making art and a real pleasure derived from the material.
In the collective and inclusive way of women who have borne children, Tasseor expresses her nurturing inclination in her work. The pieces are about families, groupings, and no single figures are presented. Family 1967 is a bouquet of heads on a single stalk; Family 1969 is a dark and dense-surfaced piece of stone, thin and elegant. There's a more formal quality to this piece, the balance and symmetry indicating a disciplined intent that she has seen to its conclusion.
John Tiktak works large and sure. With simple unadorned surfaces he enters into a partnership with stone giving it its full due. His Mother and Child 1966 is an exercise in physical gravity: a solid mother showing the downward pull of gravity, a baby hooked at her back straining as a diagonal force. The mother's head is a satisfyingly round shape, the size of a cupped hand. Family is a bar of grey stone, a sled bearing four heads, each looking at his own landscape. Facial features are barely marked as incised lines, the piece a more minimal statement than the others.
Man Image is an obelisk of stone, arms raised to form a hood for the head. The legs are indicated by a shallow indentation, as though a thumb had been drawn down soft clay. The piece is simple, serene and confident, by far the most personal of all his pieces.
While George Tataniq's style is identifiable from piece to piece his range of subjects is the most varied. His repertoire includes musk-oxen, birds, transforming shamanic pieces and people. There is a lovely Bird, heavy-hovering, rocking slightly on its nest, and there's a formidable Musk Ox 1971, a large, heavy, round-humped thing secure against the wind, nature matching nature. With such a massive piece, Tataniq has taken an artistic risk in allowing whimsy to tilt the head just enough to indicate his genuine affection for the subject and the work he's doing with it. This is an artist who takes risks and he's done it again with Woman 1973. He's turned a sizeable stone to woman. She stands in her atigi, legs squared off, arms held away from her sides with wrists turned out in a gesture of yielding and receptiveness. Her delicately picked out Brancusi head is tilted back, concern evident on her face. It's a piece about women and why — and what — Tataniq has done is a reassertion of the feminine. He's applied small white bone breasts to the surface of the parka but in fact the after-application of adornment is not about surface. The risk was well taken.
Andrew Miki is the only artist of the seven whose work is not about people. What it is about is the wry humour that allows man to prevail in difficult circumstances. The animals are composites — good natured, funny, but not trivial. They're entirely fanciful but they're not unreasonable. They're a generous offering in an environment that is not. Caribou Head is an animal portrait in light grey stone. It's a simple piece with the muzzle just indicated and two round, astonished eyes. It's also tolerant, as generous as are the animals who give themselves to be eaten. Caribou 1972 is one of Miki's charming composites. There's a musk-ox hump and a dog's head but somehow the caribou is sensed and you're pleased that you've been tricked by his visual sophistication.
Tiny pieces of monumental scale, concise understatements making anything else redundant, John Pangnark's work is about the most minute measure of time. He knows just when to stop. Out of his private and confident vision he presents Bear Woman, essentially a square block of stone, small ears indicating the direction of movement, lumbering leg just pushing off in forward motion. The woman exists, if she wants, in the barely incised face and in the internal elegance of the sculpture. 'Human Image' is a loaf-shaped stone, the face only mentioned on the surface, at the top. The arms just graze the stone in the form of two slightly arcing lines. There's an almost religious regard for material and form evidenced here — a serenity and confidence which leaves the viewer astonished. All of the pieces are about mass, about line and silhouette too. Does it come from the landscape relief?
There's an early bronze piece by Picasso called Head of a Woman that George Tataniq would recognize and Jacob Epstein's stone Doves could just as easily be Tataniq's grey stone bird. Max Ernst's plaster Lunar Asparagus could stand in for Luke Iksiktaaryuk's bone shaman. Giacometti's plaster Head is as wide-eyed, blocky and whimsical as Andrew Miki's dream shapes and animal composites. The cut away shapes Tiktak deals with in his Standing Man are as confident and deliberate as those Lipchitz presents in his bronze Figure.
I've called up the names of modernist sculptural giants because their work is known and seen without the parenthesis of cultural context. We know they worked out of a western European tradition, but how did they? Look at the catalogues and argument of the major Primitivism in 20th Century Art show mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in 1984. Parallels are drawn, in fact 'primitive originals' are held up beside 20th century pieces and the viewer is invited to check sources and influence.
Why the self-conscious approach to the Inuit work? Why is it collected primarily by departments of ethnology and not by art galleries? The sociological position could point to a western arrogance, but the curator of Pure Vision clearly loves the work and recognizes that it is good. And he's done a number of important things in assembling this show. He's reminded us (or almost succeeded in doing so), that this isn't Inuit art it's the work of seven artists who are Inuit; that there's a body of work of sufficient quality to be given a major show; that in a region there's a style which distinguishes it from other regions; and that within regional contexts artists are doing work which differs dramatically from one to the other. On the other hand, the show fails to prove his introductory assertion that the work is largely non-narrative. Most of it is narrative and directly referential to its cultural source, but so what? How is that limiting?
I'm confused, finally, by what appears to be a reticence, a holding back. All that's required to enter into the dance is the same confidence in the work that these seven artists declare. They deserve to be trusted.
BorderCrossings, Vol. 5 #3, May 1986.
Text: © Meeka Walsh. All rights reserved.
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