Friday, July 9, 2010

A book I did not purchase at MacLeod’s last week was Vancouver Art Gallery Senior Curator Ian Thom’s Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast (2009), published by Douglas & MacIntyre.

Like many books published at a time when book news is increasingly rare (at least through traditional media), I was not aware of Challenging Traditions until I saw it at the VAG gift shop. A quick flip-through revealed the usual names and practices, as well as some surprises – the biggest being an omission.

Absent from Challenging Traditions is the work of Vancouver-based Dunne-za artist Brian Jungen, one of the best-known and most innovative younger artists working out of Vancouver today. That “innovation,” along with “technical accomplishment” and a “clearly developed style of their own,” are touchstones for inclusion does not, according to Thom’s “Preface”, apply to Jungen, whom he feels is “more inflected by conceptual and environmental concerns than aesthetic languages of his ancestry.”

What a strange claim. From Jungen’s masterful inversion of Nike trainers into Kwakwaka’wakw masks to his whale skeletons made of blow-moulded plastic chairs, Jungen fulfills these criteria, and more. But if not, why then does Thom not devote a section of his book to elaborate his argument? I would much rather read that than have to endure Sonny Assu’s literalist re-inscriptions of the Coca Cola logo into “Coast Salish” -- especially in the wake of the cease and desist order issued by Starbuck’s against the Haida Gwaii-based coffee merchant, Haidabucks. What is Assu adding to the conversation that has not already been enacted through litigation’s theatre?

But what is most disturbing, at least to my mind, is reading Thom’s exclusion in relation to Doris Shadbolt’s historic proposition: that art made by First Nations artists today be seen as contemporary art. For Shadbolt, Jungen must have been the artist she was waiting for when conceptualizing her 1967 Arts of the Raven exhibition, an artist that drew from, and reflected, both local and international histories. To exclude Jungen because he is in dialogue with – and making material of – Western art history not only diminishes the relevance of Challenging Traditions but the work of those included, such as Coast Salish artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, who, through his deliberately modernist extrapolation of the ovoid, brought depth to a painting practice that was, by the mid-1990s, on the verge of pasteurization.

Of course I say all this without citing another of the book's exclusions, Rebecca Belmore, an Anishinabe performance-based artist who has been living and working out of Vancouver for the past ten years. Unlike Jungen, she goes unmentioned.

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