Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Converging Lines at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

Cree Steven's mixed media painting, Fortify This One, is made of acrylic paint/pastes/gels, paper, cheesecloth and leather. 
   With a variety of indigenous backgrounds, Cree Stevens, Shaun Hedican, Elliot Doxtater-Wynn and Kristy Cameron each have unique personal approaches to express their respect for their ancestors, to pay homage to family and to the artists who inspired them. Their work is on display at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery till February 25 in a show called, Converging Lines: Recent Art from the Northwest.
Cree Steven's sculptural work, Wiigwaasaatig.
     Leaves, feathers, bark, tools, jewelry, craftwork, animals or the remnants of animals appear in a variety of forms and in more than one artist’s work where First Nation’s styles are mixed with traditional and contemporary western art approaches. This variety creates a strong show to make an overarching statement on the value of variety and how variety can be achieved through personal expression.
     Many locals already know Cree Steven’s work from craft shows where Steven’s should get an award for having the best vendor’s booth, a “booth” more akin to a miniature professional gallery with displays that are an art in themselves. Steven’s work sells quickly enough that she practically burns herself out, along with her partner Bruce, in a rush to create new work and set up for the next show. Stevens has sold many of her large birch-bark and antler works along with her intricate and beautiful jewelry.
     So it is a delight to see Steven’s larger wall pieces and sculptures at the gallery. Her work exudes mythological power and beauty that seems barely containable within the clean Scandinavian symmetry of design and gorgeous copper accents within the wood, bark and antlers. Copper acts as a binding element in the works as if it represents the blood, energy and power of living things, creating an elegance that refreshes familiar imagery and objects in unexpected ways. 
Elliot Doxtater-Wynn's untitled piece.
    Shaun Hedican plays with a familiar spidery Woodland style adding depth with a background out-of-focus imagery and shadows. In other works the style is seemingly tattooed to the bones of animals, potential talismans used in ancient rituals. The spear, titled “Family Staff” is both artful and menacing as it exudes it’s function beyond art and the gallery. It almost seems out of place as if it were either a museum piece or a found object, stolen from a ritual and mistakenly placed in the gallery. It’s gloriously alive and threatening. 
Shaun Hedican's
work, Family Staff
     Three large untitled paintings by Elliot Doxtater-Wynn command a wall where the leaves that form the clothes belonging to the man or woman in the paintings have fallen to organize as rectangular shapes on the floor. The bold cartoon-like figures are more animated and seem to belong in an otherworldly space, but they are held in place by the leaves made heavy with their shiny coating. A story is forming in the images with it’s meaning kept mysterious and subjective.
Kristy Cameron's work, Cattail Legend
     Playful in her approach, Kristy Cameron dives into the netherworld with creatures and characters in settings that are wonderfully suggestive of journeys into the mythical. In the painting, Cattail Legend, a man in space is holding up a planetary sized bulb of cattails that supports a massive tree. Without knowing the legend, what happens next is anyone’s guess, but the painting is ideographic in its presentation suggesting that the little man, thus humans in general, are but a small thing compared to nature, yet important for its survival. The little man has the burden of a world on his shoulders. 
     In other works, Christy plays with abstract flows of colour that would be beautiful on their own merit, however with the little woodland style animals, one called, Michi Peshu, the paintings take on other dramatic and fun dimensions. 
Kristy Cameron's work, Trickster Rabbit
     Where today we are fearful of a revival of populism or tribalism, of people going “back to blood,” this show makes a great nod to the idea that we don’t have to play to group mentality or one standard or style in order to be accepted. We can retain our ancestry and still be part of what brings us all together, to share and help launch ourselves into the future without the loss of our cultures, our past, or the opportunity to shape it the way we like for the future.

The Nostalgia We Love

  The film and television business is making a killing with a trend that returns Generation X and some of Y (Millennials) back to the 1980s, rekindling the spirit and excitement of their youth with television shows like Stranger Things, Glow, The Americans and many other 21st Century programs set in the 1980s. The list of 1980s remake movies from Hollywood is even longer and would fill this column with an ever growing list soon to include rebooted versions of Scarface and Top Gun.  
     The trends are notable and usually obvious. In the 1970s and 80s Baby Boomers watched Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Grease, American Graffiti, all set in the1950s and 60s, revealing that trends returning entire generations to the past is nothing new. Not so obvious are the numerous 1980s phrases, songs, fashion styles and suchlike that photo-bomb many shows and movies, shows set not only in our time but in science fiction films as well. These nostalgic nods to the past capitalize on the 1980s reset trend. 
    The contemporary art world is quite different as it is not controlled by public taste. The success of any new contemporary works of art is controlled primarily by the taste of the wealthy one percent and by a continuing ideology of disguised modernism taught in most university fine art departments that work hard to avoid a wholesale return to the past. 
     Yet nods to the past can be very important in contemporary art circles. They show an adherence to the underlying modernist ideology by paying homage to great modernists.     When you see some drips, there’s Jackson Pollack. When you see some dots, there’s George Seurat, or with bigger dots, Roy Lichtenstein. When you see two eyes on the side of portrait profile, there’s Picasso. Anything melting or bending, there’s Salvador Dali. Even when you see flat and colourful collages and patterning in children’s books, there can be Matisse.
    The art field is filled with these nods. However because the general public has virtually no influence in the art world of big galleries and museums many artists are confused about what sells and who they should aim to sell their art work to. Without a big new movement forming in New York City, many artists aren’t sure what art is for or what it is about. Many of us hedge our bets and flail around for a while before settling on a style that either sells or gets praise from an authority, maybe a professor, curator, critic or gallery director. Anyone else, we’ve been taught, isn’t much of an authority. Including our mothers. 
     What is rarely taught or understood is how art has a direct influence on the civic world. Art is all around us and if artists took the time to think outside the gallery and not disdain anything that benefits the public as a commercial exercise they would see that not only is there money to be made, but status and the ability to experiment with aesthetics on a larger scale that would benefit all of us. 
     The stand alone painting or sculpture is meant to be an obvious work of art, but imagine if you could have your art in plain sight, even hide it and make artistic statements with signage,  graffiti, store front window dressing, a contemporary mosaic within sidewalk tiles, or creative use of lamp posts. Opportunities abound for the progressive artist in the civic world which is slow to progress.    
     The blend of contemporary art and its use of new materials within the civic and commercial world of the general public could be amazing and could reignite the past trends of artistic movements. A new contemporary art that removes the influence of the wealthy one percent and the oligarchy of the art world could be one that is truly modern and progressive, even with and maybe more so with nostalgic nods to the past.