Friday, 18 January 2013

Carl Beam's Monumental Show

Anything truly huge can grab your attention, and there’s a bit of monumental in everything relating to the show of Carl Beam’s manly art at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, including what it took to install the works, the size of the works, the language used to describe the pieces, and the subject matter.

In order to host this show, the TBAG had to meet the requirements of the National Gallery in Ottawa, which included hiring a monitor to oversee the hanging process, as the works are difficult to hang, and valuable. Two transport trucks delivered the art and ten people were involved in the unrolling of the largest work on canvas, called Time Warp. It is stapled to the wall. A wall extension had to be built for it. All this stretched the human and financial resources of the TBAG.

Carl Beam, born Carl Edward Migwans, passed away in 2005, gaining notoriety in the 1980s with his fierce approach to primarily aboriginal subjects, part of his heritage from his mother’s side who was Ojibwe. His father was an American soldier who died as a prisoner of war in WWII. He was raised by his Ojibwe grandparents, yet also in a residential school in Spanish, Ontario, near Sudbury.

The TBAG has had a mandate to focus on contemporary aboriginal art since the 1980s, which is why the TBAG hosted Carl Beam’s first solo show in 1984. At that time the gallery commissioned a piece of work, which resulted in a painting called Exorcism in which arrows and an axe protrude. A local archer, shot the arrows into the canvas with direction from Beam, creating an event at the gallery that people still talk about today.
At times, the language used to describe much of Beam’s work gives the impression that Beam’s work is high art, art dealing with big thematic subjects that the public will recognize and be able to respond to, much like the classicists of the past. Instead Beam’s work infers meaning. Beam himself refers to his works as puzzles. Thus Beam’s work is more fine art than high art, appealing more to the fine art community and those willing to spend some time working on the puzzles. It helps to know a little about the artist, and a bit about the past.
In the 1980s to even suggest that Christopher Columbus was really a mass murderer, or that residential schools could be a torturous experience was controversial. As a result, Beam’s imagery, and personal experience reflected in the paintings had a big impact. Today the works still have a deep foreboding quality. And, inspired by artists Rauschenberg and Warhol, he produced a template-like style inspirational for other First Nation artists, showing how mixed imagery, personal symbols and related objects could be used to create large scale visual poems.

Typical of his work, except for the monumental size, is Time Warp. It is a 40 foot giant poem on canvas with handprints, numbers that represent passing time, photo images, painted images, great washes of colour, splatter, and various other elements. It’s a bold expression of feeling and coded personal meaning, demanding a closer look and some thought.
The result of so many bold works is a very strong, and big, exhibition, definitely worth seeing if you’ve never heard of Carl Beam. A great opportunity to learn more is offered by the showing of the documentary, Aakideh: The Art and Legacy of Carl Beam, on Friday, February 15 at 7:30 at the Paramount Theatre, 24 Court St., South. Admission is by donation. 

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