lessLIE: cuneiFORM-LINE

The exhibition CuneiFORM-LINE confirms lessLIE's status as a contemporary Coast Salish artist who is of critical importance to the history of modern art of the Pacific Northwest region. The new works created for this exhibition draw upon over a decade of thinking about Coast Salish art as a form of 'MEDIAtion,' to quote the artist. lessL's visual scholarship and art practice have produced a critical body of work that focuses on the image as a point of cultural and intellectual exchange between himself as a Salish person and artist and his diverse audiences.

 Throughout his development as a visual artist lessLIE has addressed what can only be described as his passionate ambivalence toward the English language. Torn between the endeavor of creative writing and that of the visual arts, lessLIE developed a way of thinking artistically about this written language and visual symbols of his Coast Salish culture. As a modern artist he intensively studies literature written almost solely by cultural outsiders that describes and documents his people, their art, and their histories. While the artist acknowledges the contribution that this body of thought has made to contemporary Salish artists' knowledge of history, he condemns the use of the language as a tool of oppression in the production of documents like the Indian Act. This piece of legislation prohibited the practice of First Nations cultural activities up until its revision in 1951. Yet, lessLIE does not dwell in deeply rooted debates over appropriate re-presentation of Coast Salish culture or the continuing discrimination of First Nations peoples by a dominant culture. He chooses to revel and find inspiration in the tensions produced by the English language's continuing dual function as a tool of cultural survival and also of cultural oppression for Salish people.

 The incorporation and engagement of visual symbols used in the English language are evident in the paintings CuneiFORM-LINE and beLIEve in equality. lessLIE's spirited play with the repetition of visual elements in CuneiFORM-LINE includes an imitation of the letter 'I' at the base of the image and a trigon and crescent at the top of it. The painting documents the artist's contemplation about how visual elements of communication work both in the written English language and in Coast Salish design. CuneiFORM-LINE is not about comparing or examining differences between the two systems of communication. Rather, the image suggests a question: can we know something familiar to us via the English language differently, by seeing the concept or idea expressed using Salish design elements?

 lessLIE incorporates the graphic sign of equality in the painting beLIEve in equality in a compelling way to draw our attention to the frequent euphemistic use of the symbol. The painting is both a call to think more critically about how we visually portray ideas about power relations, and to commit ourselves to the values we purport in such representations. LessLIE's use of art to mediate complex historical and contemporary intersections of Salish and non-Salish peoples begins with his sincere fascination of the human desire to create line marks for the purpose of communication. This exhibition continues his artistic exploration with lines used in the formation of letter symbols and as part of written words, and in the specific design elements used by Coast Salish artists for generations to convey cultural knowledge. The act of making such marks, cites lessLIE, is the common point of departure for visual communication across many cultures around the world, and through time. His interest in the development of formal systems of lines used in visual communication spans temporal and cultural contexts. His scope of reference ranges from Mesopotamian writing systems to the use of form line elements by First Nations artists from the northwest coast. Specifically, the in-common usage of elements such as the wedge, crescent, oval and circle capture his attention.

 lessLIE diverts our attention away from the use of the line as a tool by which we visualize the English language in the well-known arenas of cultural power struggles. Instead, he steers us toward imaginative and often unfamiliar points of destination where we might use the mark of a line to understand each other in new ways' that happen to be Coast Salish in origin. The paintings in this exhibition make bold statements that demand their readers to embrace a new form of literacy'”one that mediates between written language, oral history, and visuality. The paintings are a part of a process to'accept literacy on my own terms' according to lessLIE. The exhibition CuneiFORM-LINE invites audiences to become literate in a new way teaches us not only about the artist and his thoughts, but provide departure points for reconsidering our relationships with each other and the environments we share with other animals.

 Becoming Negative and Perpetual Hummingbirds support the cause of finding a balance between our human exploits and their effects on other living things in our shared environments. We are asked to consider and marvel at the power and beauty that exists in the natural world of which we are part. In the painting Becoming Negative lessLIE critically calls attention to the diminishing salmon stocks in the rivers that the Coast Salish people have fished since time immemorial. This year, the salmon returns are so low that not only are commercial and sport fisheries scaled back, but so too are the food and ceremonial fisheries for First Nations peoples. Unlike the recovery from debt in a capitalist economy where money can come from a variety of sources to cancel a negative balance, the depletion of salmon stocks is not so easily replenished. lessLIE's bold use of colour and line graphically communicate the message of so many research scientists who, too, are ringing bells of alarm over our actions on the salmon and other inhabitants of rivers and oceans. Perpetual Hummingbirds asks us to stop and honour and consider the beauty displayed by creatures that surround us daily, yet toward which we pay little attention. The active visual punning of the small birds in flight alludes to their constant motion. The movement in the design of this painting echoes that found in the real world activities of these winged creatures.

 Frog Transform-Line and Middle Point speak directly to the development of lessLIE's identity as an artist and long-term commitment to furthering his understanding of Coast Salish design elements. Frog Transform-Line as a self-portrait of sorts is also an invitation issued by the artist to a discussion about the borrowing and exchange of design elements between northern and southern artists on the Pacific coast. Northern design elements are hinted at in the body of the frog, the creature displays a cheeky smile that suggests the artist does this borrowing in a lighthearted fashion. His deep commitment to Coast Salish design and art history is reflected in Middle Point. lessLIE initially began work on this design over 10 years ago. Over a decade of study and experimentation later, Middle Point exhibits a mature understanding and use of crescents, trigons, and circles that reference the central importance of the spindle whorl to Coast Salish people. His strategic use of shapes and colour is enhanced by the elegance of balance in the weight between positive and negative spaces in the design. lessLIE's close study of many spindle whorls is fundamental to this integrity of this image.

 It is impossible to separate the written statements produced by the artist from his images about which he writes. The relationship between lessLIE's images and texts demonstrate his ongoing engagement with language and visuality, and his search to find a mode of artistic practice that sutures drawing, design, painting, and writing. His artist statements do not simply explain the image; they are another form of the discussion he aims to take up with his audience through the act of painting. The paintings and texts in CuneiFORM-LINE are equally didactic and poetic. They push viewers and readers in bold and sometimes seductive ways into witnessing the power of Coast Salish design to communicate complex ideas about human cultural and intellectual exchange, and the maintenance of balance between us and other animals in our shared environment.

 Thunderbird is a visual interpretation by lessLIE of the classic story told by Coast Salish peoples about a time when the Thunderbird saved the people from starvation by removing Orca whales who were depleting the salmon stocks in the waters traditionally fished by the people for food. The classic story speaks of the righting of an imbalance caused by a predator of the natural world. The painting Thunderbird and its accompanying text also speak of an imbalance caused by a predator - this time the offending beast is not the whale, but Western culture. In the 2007 exhibition Transporters: Contemporary Coast Salish Art at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, lessLIE exhibited this image of the Thunderbird next to an equal-sized panel of wall-mounted text (repeated here in the artist's statement). lessLIE's strategic placement of English language text next to his Coast Salish image of the Thunderbird was a deliberate attempt to force viewers to consider their relationship. What can we learn from the story of predators and imbalance told through his use of Salish design and the classic Thunderbird story, and the one he tells through his use of poetic written text about culture and technology? And more importantly - how does such an examination force us to see our familiar world differently? Unlike in the classic Salish story, lessLIE's painting and text offer no resolution to deep-rooted conflicts between predator and prey. Curiously, it is this lack of resolution that lessLIE finds inspiring for his artistic practice. Here in a mileu of complexly contested ideas and competing forms of power and knowledge, the artist locates the tensions that serve as departure points for further exploration. The works in CuneiFORM-LINE invite us to contemplate the concept of difference. Importantly, such reflection should guide us to reconsidering relationships and possible points of suture between diverse peoples and ways of knowing.

 Andrea N. Walsh PhD.
 Associate Professor,
 Dept. of Anthropology,
 University of Victoria

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