A Finely Tuned Revolution

Review by Yvonne Owens
August 5th, 2017

The three artists featured in the Alcheringa Gallery exhibition, ‘(R)evolving Whorl(d),’ are not only visual artists; they are also avid researchers. It is primarily the work of artists, moonlighting as scholars and historians, that has brought the profile of Coast Salish art and design back from the brink. Until relatively recently, Coast Salish artistic identity could be said to have been facing imminent cultural extinction. Cultural oblivion threatened via widespread popular ignorance of the subtle, elegant design traditions—the nuanced characteristics of Coast Salish aesthetics. This obscurity, like a prophet in his or her own land, is nowhere more apparent than on the home turf. The story of its revival is fascinating, quirky, and— like the art in this exhibit—not without its ironies.

The artists of ‘(R)evolving Whorl(d)’ come to their visual deliberations via different paths, but all are scholars of Coast Salish cultural history and the evolution of the iconic spindle whorl design. This graceful design vocabulary is best seen in functional art—tools and household artifacts—forms that Thomas, Paul, and LessLIE have resurrected in decidedly non-traditional, entirely contemporary ways. By combining new and ancient media and materials, Traditional and Post-Modern perspectives and expressions, the artists thrust the subject of Coast Salish design into the forefront of contemporary aesthetic discourse.

Dylan Thomas, whose passions are many but include studying World Sacred Geometry, describes his relationship to the spindle whorl, as both icon and object, thusly: “By its strictest definition, the spindle whorl is an object—a functional tool

used by ancient cultures to create textiles—a means to an end. But as a Salish artist, the spindle whorl is more than an item. It’s the stable space at the centre of my inspiration where I learned the power of the crescent and trigon, the aesthetic nuance of symmetry, flow, balance, and movement. For me, the spindle whorl is the symbol of my culture, a lineage, the spiritual thread that connects me to my ancestors.”

What Thomas refers to here is the traditional Coast Salish design vocabulary of the circle, the crescent, the trigon and the extended crescent. These repeated forms create the impression of constant, expansive motion. The effect is greatly enhanced when the patterns are inscribed or carved into a moving or rotating surface, as with their original uses on functional objects, like that of a spindle whorl in spinning motion. When used as stationary meditative patterns, as with Thomas’ spiritual and artistic applications, the effect is mesmerizing, mind-altering, and perhaps also (given the right circumstances and intent) mind expanding. The interplay of positive and negative space unfolds in Thomas’ works in subtle and elegant ways, typical of Salish design generally, the visual vocabulary and syntax of which works as much by inference and suggestion as by overt imagery.

One fascinating aspect of the conversation I had with all three artists in the show had to do with what they referred to as ‘negative space literacy’—being able to read the negative and positive spaces in the designed composition as equally relevant and meaningful. With Coast Salish traditional design, and in these artists’ renovations of it, the positive and negative spaces are reciprocal, creating each other more overtly and concretely, and that says something otherwise ineffable about Coast Salish spiritual philosophy. Still more profoundly, it maps and models traditional Coast Salish cosmology. It is an understanding of connectivity—a visual language describing the dynamic synthesis, synchronous movement or symbiosis, that is at the core of all living matter and form.

(Dylan Thomas, 'Whale Spirits' Detail, 2017)

Thomas has consulted the historical Salish artifacts held in the B.C. Museum collection under the tutelage of artists and Elders, including LessLIE, Susan Point, Joe Wilson and others, and found an amazing consistency of abstract design principles and geometries. He has enfolded these influences within his own works, prints and paintings, informed both by his studies of sacred geometry and the works of his ancestors. In the ancient tradition of Coast Salish spindle whorl designs, Thomas creates mandala-like images for prints, etchings, lithographs, and paintings, and incorporates principles of Buddhism, Coast Salish medicine spirituality, Higher Mathematics and Sacred Geometry. In ‘Purity,’ Thomas has rendered an unfolding lotus design, a mandala radiated outward from a glowing blue-green dot. Valerie Morgan, of the Kwa-Gulth/Giksan Culture from Alert Bay, told me long ago that blue-green was the “spiritual color,” and it seems to show up here in that guise also.

Purity Purity

(Dylan Thomas, ‘Purity,’ 2017, painted, sandblasted wood panel)

Thomas has also created a faithful homage to a particular historic piece in the B.C. collection for this exhibit, with his painting, ‘Harmony’ (acrylic on canvas, 24” X 24”). The design, with elongated crescents, symmetrical crescents, trigons, confronted trigons forming diamond shapes, ovals, and circles from the traditional Coast Salish design lexicon, is profoundly modernized and contemporized by virtue of its pastel palette of modulated, complementary hues and its medium—acrylic paint on canvas.

Dylan Thomas Dylan Thomas

If there is a quality shared among all of LessLIE’s contributions in this show, it would have to be described as essentially Romantic. In small, subtle pieces of impossible perfection, he has romanced the forms, volumes, shades, textures and delicate grains of fine, soft wood into gentle, glowing expressions. When confronted with the small wood three-dimensional pieces, one’s fingers want to caress the smooth surfaces. They are tremendously inviting. A feeling akin to tenderness is evoked at the immense, paradoxical fragility and strength evinced by this artist’s approach to materials and themes. ‘From Wood and Water’ is a delicate, minimalist deliberation on endurance and vulnerability, texture and grain. The revelation of thegrains is evident for having been approached with something akin to reverence. And that deep, quiet sentiment is catching.

It was not always so with this artist. Previous bodies of works have been edgy, provocative, and quite challenging. They tended always to be humorous, however, if pointedly satirical. LessLIE can even have been said to employ a caustic irony and multiple, nested visual puns in previous shows. He has co-curated and exhibited in shows on the themes of the marriage of contemporary Northwest Coast artistic expressions, cultural appropriation, ethical activism and the ancestral past for years. Challenging the dichotomies between traditional and contemporary art, as well as what’s considered marketable, has long been a passion of his: “I think there’s this thing in the contemporary Northwest Coast First Nations art scene, where there are these coffee-table books describing the legends, with these really technically proficient pieces polished in the books. I think that’s great and has profound cultural value, but at the same time, there hasn’t been much in the way of critical discourse ...that challenges people’s static notions of contemporary Northwest Coast art.”

In the show that LessLIE co-curated for the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, ‘Urban Thunderbirds/Ravens in a Material World’ (2013), one of his pieces in the show incorporated a distinctly irreverent irony on the matter of cultural appropriation and retaliatory inverse appropriation. This is a strategy also deployed by First Nations Contemporary Trickster Artists, Jim Logan (Métis ) and Kent Monkman (Cree), to great (and often hilarious) advantage. LessLIE’s piece, ‘‘Cultural CununDRUM,’ resembled a spindle whorl design in which the little Starbucks double-tailed mermaid seems to peer out from the painted surface of a traditional circular drum. Traditional Coast Salish motifs of salmon and spindle whorl design characterize this Northwest Coast version of the icon appropriated by Starbucks to its corporate trademark. She is actually Freya Nerthus, the ‘Fish Tailed Aphrodite’ of the Nordic pantheon. Images of this double tailed mermaid/goddess can be seen on medieval cathedral door lintels, like smiling ‘Sheelagh-na-gigs,’ another pagan icon mysteriously included in early Christian decorative programs.

In fact, it’s a feminine, Tricksterish archetype with more-or-less global diffusion. Historic Northwest Coast spirituality also venerated such a figure. Traditionally worked, Northwest Coast, tribal versions adorn house lintels throughout B.C. coastal areas. They are also seen on historic Coast Salish Spindle Whorls, and some of these can be viewed in the Northwest Coast collection of historical artifacts at the Royal B.C. Museum.

Some of the ancestors of LessLIE’s entirely modern invitation piece for the current show, ‘Thunderbird Spindle Whorl,’ reside in the historical collection at the B.C. Museum. LessLIE’s renovation of the design occurs in the crystalline surfaces of etched glass, encompassed by an exquisitely joined frame of silken-soft, champagne- pale, yellow cedar. The contrast of colors, textures and surfaces is enticing in the extreme; the smooth, minimalist modernity of the materials and their high-gloss finishes set the ancient, traditional design lexicon of trigons, crescents, circles and C- shapes to wondrous flight in the imagination. Everything about this piece is satisfying—to the tactile sense, the intellect’s insistent probing, and the spirit’s eternal yearning for ecstatic unity.

lessLIE lessLIE

(LessLIE, ‘Thunderbird Spindle Whorl,’ 2017, etched glass, yellow cedar, 36” dia.)

In his two large paintings, ‘Salmon World View,’ and ‘Thunderbird World View,’ LessLIE has elicited the glowing, traditional forms of sacred animals out of their polychromed grounds like shadows emerging out of brilliantly coloured fog. With black on black, orange on orange, and rose-madder red on red gels and glazes, he has not so much painted as conjured the shapes from the pigments. The effects achieved bestow a peculiarly live quality to the motile figures, shimmering, swimming or flying in their softly glowing, mysterious realms. They hover just beyond clear sight, on the edges of perception.

lessLIE lessLIE

(LessLie, ‘Salmon World View, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 4’ X 4’)

In this show, LessLIE plays with our senses and perceptions, our ideas about Coast Salish art and our expectations of it. For his black on black three-dimensional piece, ‘wEDGE’ (painted, sandblasted wood, 2017), LesslIE created depressions in the matt black surface of the panel by sandblasting, then painted in the depressed areas with several coats of dark umber brown wash. The ‘floors’ of the depressed areas are of varying altitudes and depths, like the ocean floor. The textures are frilled, like gills, energy waves, amphibian frills, or corals. Our fingertips want to verify what our eyes see (though this would no doubt be frowned upon by the gallery). These delicate, organic, mysterious ‘frills’ are really just the wood grain, exposed and distressed by the sandblasting. There is no way to photograph this piece in such a way as to reproduce its strange effects. It has to be experienced live.

If LessLIE can be said to ‘romance’ form, enticing it from its matrix, media and material like a tender courtship dance, Chris Paul could be said to ‘massage’ his images out of a profoundly allowing, border-crossing space. His colors give the impression of having never existed before—of having been magicked out of an alternative universe with different rules. This is the result of carefully mixed pigments rubbed on, rubbed off, then reapplied—distressed and eroded to a fine patinas and softly glowing hues. Aubergines, taupes, brick reds, teal, and lime

greens occur in finishes that suggest age or oxidation, weathering by the elements and the sheer vicissitudes of Time.

With humor and respect, in pieces like ‘Grandmother Whorl’ and ‘Beginning Again,’ Paul mediates complex ideas into elegant form. His pieces often seem to have the effect of concealing a secret just on the brink of revelation—a cosmic joke about to be sprung, with the punch-line delivering not the feared pratfall, but an affectionate kiss. A close-up inspection of the circular mixed-media piece, ‘Feeling the Pull of the Earth,’ reveals the tumbling figures of tiny people, men, women and children, spinning around the glowing, pristine orb at its centre. This centre is the gently carved face, full of expression, wrought of classic Salish design elements, who peers at us as if from a secret, abiding core.

The piece is constructed of three concentric circles, describing perhaps the sacred tri-cosmos—the ancestral cosmology of spiritual journeying and dream vision, spanning the realms of the three ‘worlds’ of the Tree of Life—the Upper World, the Lower World, and This World, the present moment of corporeal presence and perception. The middle concentric ring—perhaps corresponding to This World, Tolkien’s ‘Middle Earth’—is stained the ruddy red of life blood, the menstruum, the challenging, vital realm where we show up in our earthly bodies and antic spirits for a mortal life’s journey. This is where we are pulled into being. Having been drawn into form, we are lyrically turning around and around the gravitational core, attracted like moths to a flame. The piece subtly manages to be poignant, funny, and reverent to life’s mysterious forces all at once.

Chris Paul, like Susan Point, is no stranger to huge public art commissions. His skills in metallurgy, welding and the other ancient and modern arts of the forge give him ample grounding in large-scale sculptural techniques. But there is one piece in this show that may face challenges finding a home due to its towering scale and sheer altitude. ‘Kiss the Sky,’ wrought to great height of wood and brushed aluminum, is painted a color approaching chartreuse. ‘Kiss the Sky’ definitely requires just the right space and just the right collector—one whose home or workplace has high ceilings. Other sculptural pieces by this artist will have no trouble fitting into the collections of the normatively ceilinged—a piece to feel at home with like a fond family member or remembrance—a finely tuned ancestral song, rendered in contemporary cadences.

ALCHERINGA GALLERY, ‘(R)evolving Whorl(d)’

A group exhibition by Coast Salish artists

LessLIE, Chris Paul, Dylan Thomas August 5 – September 2, 2017
621 Fort St., Victoria, BC
Canada V8W 1G1

Tel: 250-383-8224 Website: http://www.alcheringa-gallery.com/

Leave a Reply