by Karen Duffek
In 1967, just a few blocks from where Satellite Gallery is now located, Eaton’s staged an exhibit that included the work of our current featured artist, Henry Speck. It was the year of Canada’s centennial, and the department store put on Eaton’s Salute to Indian Culture. It was a public celebration of Native arts and cultural practices arranged from street level to the sixth floor, with artifact displays and carvers demonstrating their craft in between racks of clothing and hardware, chiefs offering autographs on Saturday between 2:00 and 4:00 pm only, samples of barbequed salmon, and a few non-Native artists showing paintings of Indian people and totem poles.
On the main floor, the young Haida artist, Robert Davidson, demonstrated argillite carving; nearby was the already well-known artist Bill Reid (depicted in the flyer as wearing a headband and loincloth), carving a cedar screen. Prints of Henry Speck’s Kwakwaka’wakw thunderbirds and sea monsters were offered on floors two and five; and in the middle of the Ladies’ Lingerie department there was the Alert Bay artist, Doug Cranmer (quite happily, as he later recalled), carving a totem pole.
This storied event was organized to complement the important Arts of the Raven show at the nearby Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG)—an exhibition now often described as marking a watershed moment in the recognition of Northwest Coast art. Doris Shadbolt, one of the organizers of the exhibition, declared in the accompanying catalogue that the selected works were “Canadian art, modern art, fine art,” and further, “high art, not ethnology.” If there was, from our perspective today, an obvious disjuncture between Eaton’s re-contextualization and the optimistically modernist pronouncements of Arts of the Raven, there were certainly also articulations.
Mapped in the gradually escalating, dotted pathway and crude caricatures of the Eaton’s brochure is something of the entrenched hierarchies and binaries between past and present and old and new, between the culturally protected and the nationally owned, the low and the high, the hidden and the revealed, that have marked the 20th-century cartography of Northwest Coast art and intercultural relations, and continue to pervade the contemporary discourse.
As Marcia Crosby points out in our Curators’ Essay accompanying the current Satellite Gallery show, the VAG’s positioning of Northwest Coast cultural objects—both historical and contemporary—as “modern art” in Arts of the Raven was radical for the time. “The difference,” she writes, “was that new-media and performance-based works were now being viewed as a break from modernism’s ‘medium purity,’ whereas Northwest Coast art was being inserted into a longer lineage of modern art, albeit through humanist comparisons of Northwest Coast ‘masterworks’ to other ‘great’ historical works.”
Henry Speck’s paintings had been shown to much acclaim only three years earlier, at the New Design Gallery in downtown Vancouver (1964, above). Yet they were not included in Arts of the Raven. Claiming a lack of accomplished, living artists active in the mid 1960s, the catalogue’s authors (Bill Reid, Bill Holm, and Wilson Duff) did, however, name Speck as a Kwakwaka’wakw artist who was bringing new life to the old art. More recently, I asked art historian Bill Holm if he could recollect why some of Speck’s vibrant paintings were not included in the show. He surmised it might have been related to the medium, as no historical or new drawings and paintings on paper were included.
Speck’s exclusion from Arts of the Raven and his early death in 1971 presaged his later exclusion from the art-historical narrative that came to define the “revival” of Northwest Coast art and its accompanying market growth in the 1970s. Although artists like Bill Reid and Robert Davidson were also shown in the Eaton’s Salute to Indian Culture, they both went on to play leading roles in developing the discourse that cemented the formalist language and criteria by which Northwest Coast art came to be understood.
But why should we assume a consensus on the hierarchy of venues for the display of art? At the same time that urban museums and galleries—and yes, department stores—were considering who would be included in their re-classifications of Native sculptures, within Speck’s own Kwakwaka’wakw community his painted interpretations of mythical monsters remained meaningful despite their perceived modernity, traditional qualities, or commodification. Not only did they depict subjects reinforcing—for the present, not the past—family histories and rights, but his works on paper and dedication to teaching inspired a new generation of Northwest Coast artists who saw, and still see, in these vibrant and textured forms a possibility for the creative renewal of the painted art.
Join curators Karen Duffek and Marcia Crosby for a tour of Projections: The Paintings of Henry Speck, Udzi’stalis on September 15, 2012 at 2pm at Satellite Gallery. For more information about the exhibition and tour, please visit the gallery website.