The New Design Gallery, Chief Henry Speck, and Modernist Art on the Northwest Coast

by Liza Montgomery

New Design Gallery, West Vancouver MuseumNew Design Gallery: On the frontier 1955 – 1966 at West Vancouver Museum

Early- to mid-century modernist art is enjoying a resurgence in our city’s cultural institutions this summer in the form of three independently curated, yet interestingly related, art exhibitions.  The Satellite Gallery’s Projections: The Paintings of Henry Speck, Udzi’stalis (organized by the UBC Museum of Anthropology) and the West Vancouver Museum’s New Design Gallery: On the frontier 1955 – 1966 provide divergent narratives to the canonical offerings of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s latest summer blockbuster, Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters. The two more modestly scaled exhibitions examine the particularities of modernism’s emergence on the Northwest Coast.

On the dark panel: Phoneix Rising No. 3 by Don JarvisOn the dark panel: Phoenix Rising No. 3 by Don Jarvis

The Vancouver art scene of the late 1950s and ’60s has achieved mythical status in local art-historical lore. In its honour, a vast digital archive, Ruins in Process: Vancouver Art in the Sixties, was amassed by UBC’s Belkin Art Gallery and the Grunt Gallery in 2009, boasting video clips, interviews, newspaper articles, and academic research surrounding the subject. Abraham Rogatnick, co-founder of the New Design Gallery with partner Alvin Balkind, described this golden decade as a series of “halcyon days,” a “wonderful, emotional explosion of the arts” in what had previously been an artistic vacuum (1). On display in New Design Gallery is a painting by Don Jarvis that exemplifies this described atmosphere of artistic enlightenment. The painting, titled Phoenix Rising No. 3, was originally exhibited at the New Design Gallery in 1957, and depicts an expressionistically rendered, fiery phoenix rising up from the canopy of a distinctly British Columbian, Emily Carr-esque forest.  While clearly engaging in modernist formal concerns, Jarvis has firmly rooted his subject within a local context.

Moving through the West Vancouver Museum’s jam-packed gallery space, a plethora of international modernist influences are evident.  In the works of Gordon Smith, Jack Shadbolt, Takao Tanabe, Roy Kiyooka, B.C. Binning, and Michael Morris (to name only a few), one observes an engagement with the ideas of Dada, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop.  And yet there is a distinctive aesthetic sensibility present in all of the work, a preoccupation with what local art historian, Scott Watson, identifies as “the classical features of the modernist ideology: harmony, integrity, order, and balance” (2). Watson attributes this privileging of formal concerns by west-coast artists to the architectural and urban-design discourse that pervaded the artistic and academic community at the University of British Columbia.

New Design Gallery, West Vancouver Museum

Modernist ideology, in its theoretical opposition to traditional art forms, carried distinct implications for contemporary artists of Aboriginal descent.  The period of the 1950s and ’60s saw a reframing of Aboriginal artistic production within a Western/European system of aesthetic value and object-hood.  From the “primitivist” appropriations by early-modern painters like Picasso and Emil Nolde, the ’50s and ’60s witnessed further aestheticization of Aboriginal art in the promotion of a formalist framework of artistic “mastery,” in part through the discourse developed by leading players such as art historian Bill Holm and Haida artist Bill Reid.  In Projections, curators Karen Duffek and Marcia Crosby examine the various notions of the term “modern artist” in its application to Aboriginal artists in the ’50s and ’60s. Specifically, they examine the meaning of the term as it was applied, or in some cases denied, to Kwakwaka’wakw artist Chief Henry Speck.  Speck’s gouache and watercolour paintings of masked dancers and totemic creatures blend traditional motifs with an unconventional use of colour and a more naturalistic rendering of texture, volume, and space, thus breaking with the formalist doctrine then starting to emerge in the surrounding museum and academic discourse.  Speck’s work, however, was exhibited within the context of Vancouver’s central platform for contemporary art in 1964, the New Design Gallery.

Henry Speck, Moon Mask Dancers, c. 1962. MOA A8003.Henry Speck, Moon Mask Dancers, c. 1962. MOA A8003.

Projections comprises a selection of Speck’s works on paper, along with a rotation of projections of his paintings onto a screen in the gallery’s centre.  Behind the screen, on the gallery’s rear wall, Crosby and Duffek have projected an assemblage of historical film clips, newspaper articles, interviews, and biographical documents in an aim to re-contextualize Speck’s artwork within a political and cultural milieu.  These projections also serve to position Speck’s artistic practice within his own multi-faceted identity as a political activist, community leader, teacher, and Hamat’sa dancer.

Despite popular interest in the artistic production of this era in British Columbia’s history, the central subjects of both exhibitions—a local avant-garde institution, and Henry Speck, the artist—have not previously been the focus of extensive curatorial research.  In the development of New Design Gallery, exhibition curator Darrin Morrison has consolidated what is, to date, the richest body of research and ephemera on the institution.  Likewise, the Satellite’s exhibition of Speck’s work gives in-depth discussion and due attention to an often overlooked figure in the Northwest Coast’s, and Vancouver’s, art-historical narrative. For those interested in a nuanced look at the particular effects and localized expressions of twentieth-century modernist art in our region, these two exhibitions are a must-see.

1.  Marian Penner Bancroft (ed.), “UBC in the Sixties: A Conversation.” In  Ruins in Process: Vancouver Art in the Sixties (Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, UBC and Grunt Gallery, 2009).

2.  Scott Watson, “Art in the Fifties: Design, Leisure, and Painting in the Age of Anxiety,” in Vancouver: Art and Artists 1931 – 1983 (Vancouver Art Gallery, 1983), 98.

The New Design Gallery: on the frontier 1955-1966 is on display at the West Vancouver Museum until September 15, 2012.

Projections: The Paintings of Henry Speck, Udzi’stalis is on display at the Satellite Gallery until September 15, 2012.


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