Vancouver Art Gallery, Spirit of the Thing

By Jim Ada

“Why do you go back and back to the woods unsatisfied, longing to express something that is there and not able to find it? This I know, I shall not find it until it comes out of my inner self, until the God quality in me is in tune with the God in it.” Emily Carr

From May to November (2009) the Vancouver Art Gallery is displaying a comparative exhibition showing the works of Emily Carr (Klee Wick, “the laughing one”) and Jack Shadbolt. The exhibition fills several rooms with the spirit of the two artist’s unique take on the same subject: capturing the rhythms of Canada’s vast natural world, and the life and art of native cultures.

Many see Carr as a “Canadian icon” known for interpretive paintings that give a fresh expression to the spiritual life of Indigenous Totems and living forests. Before Carr, mainstream Canadian painters were primarily creating portraits and representing landscapes with watercolor, oil paints, and other mediums. Carr was one of Canada’s first painters to attempt to capture not just a thing, but the spirit of the thing in itself. In Carr’s definition of her process she includes the Japanese concept of Sei Do: “the transfusion into the work of the felt nature of the thing to be painted.” For an example of this we find, in many of Carr’s paintings and sketches, hidden or vague figures, animals, and spirits inhabiting a particular angle looking in the woods, sometimes they even seem to peer back out at you. Her brush strokes in other works give the impression of a forest alive with a chaotic and vibrating spirit, creating nature full of a character: a skyline screams in her work, and a forest quiets its secrets for a human figure entering it.

Jack Shadbolt was greatly influenced by the work of Emily Carr, and in moving from rooms full of Carr’s work to his own one can feel her presence. Shadbolt was willing at times to take on a radical activist stance in depicting not only the modern experience of Canada’s indigenous peoples, but also the rape and pillage approach the Western World brought to the living Natural environment itself. In comparison with Carr’s work that express the living force of the woods, Shadbolt will kill the woods in a painting, showing it chopped, logged, and cleared, and simply let it be dead. The emptiness and absence of life expressed in the lack of a vibrant forest, or in giving us an environment that once was full of life but no longer, is an extension of Carr’s own work brought to a new generation of people. The physical scale of his oeuvre is also an extension of Carr’s work, bringing similar sensations to a jaded or attention deficient era. At times his paintings might be seen as stuffed with heavy handed one liners, yet one can respond in defense by agreeing: “Yes, and precisely so is contemporary Canadian culture and the way it has treated Indigenous people and the environment.” Shadbolt, like a good comedian, is willing to throw you an old gag but do it well, and with a twist. His repertoire is wide and there are many periods of his work. In some works, by contrast, his attention to subtle detail is extraordinary, for example by imposing complex orders into the chaos of living thickets.

The idea of two artists of British ancestry securing such a vast hold on Canada’s artistic access to First Nation’s culture and art reminds us of the feminist slogan about the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It reads, “You have to be nude to be a woman and hang at the Met.” We can change the slogan to suggest that, “You have to be British to be a Indigenous painting icon.” There is something ironic about this phenomenon, and while art communities justifiably follow sets of unknown, unwritten, and often mad rules, it is the case that many current and past Native artists go underrated and unacknowledged by large Canadian art collectors. What would a solution look like?

Both Carr and Shadbolt spent a great deal of time abroad, studying the painting of other cultures. Sometimes Shadbolt is clearly channeling or modeling the Cubism of Picasso, or the Abstract Expressionists of New York, or the forms of India. Carr herself studied painting in San Francisco, England and France (she found the St Ives group in England, and the colors of the Fauves in France), and returned to Vancouver Island to paint her favorite subjects with the techniques and ideas she developed.

Given the value of influence from other cultures on artistic expression it seems a reasonable response to our need for a strong community of First Nations artists, creating First Nations art, would be financial support for studying abroad. This way of support is simple and attractive, but the implications are also clear: the development of native art involves developing it with influences from other cultures. Related is a modern Totem called the “Spirit Pole” which was unveiled in its beauty at the 2008 North American Indigenous Games. The Totem’s lines and colors were remniscent of Carr’s own and the Group of Seven’s influence. The Totem was both originally executed (by thousands of people all over B.C.) and originally designed by Carey Newman, a Coast Salish/Kwagiulth artist.

The journey of the these and many artists seems to be stubbornly counter-cultural. What culture one originates from is the culture the artist should speak both for and against. Carr herself went against a bigoted Canada to express herself in an unconventional way for the time. And now her style is the status-quo for Canadian artists. The cycle is predictable. The logical interpretation and conclusion of this brief discussion for First Nations artists is this: stop compulsively creating Native art, and then perhaps you really will begin to.