The Missing Corner—Legends lost and found at Satellite Gallery

by Rhys Edwards

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The eclecticism of the O’Brian collection encourages patrons of Cindy Sherman meets D’zunukwa to find parallels between works which wouldn’t normally be shown together. Although Sherman’s pre-eminent status within recent art history warrants her inclusion in the title of the exhibit, the combined efforts of the show’s four curators have produced an array of relational meanings which extend far beyond her immediate presence. The most interesting of these meanings, arguably, reside in the far corner of Satellite’s first gallery space.

Here, one finds three wildly different works: Ian Wallace’s Los Angeles Intersection II, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s Lost Legends, and Rufus Moody’s Untitled Model of Haida House with Poles. Initially, the relationship between them seems tenuous: the prosaic cleanness of Wallace’s Intersection mixed media image is worlds away from the turbulent admixture underlying Yuxweluptun’s abstract painting, and the polished artifice of Moody’s model argillite Haida house. Yet, each work effectively analogizes the other in a triumvirate of displaced symbols.

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In Wallace’s Intersection, one perceives the exterior of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, immediately contrasted with adjacent bands of abstract colour. The arrangement of colour bands alongside a photograph is a common trope within marketing—particularly the gallery advertisements commonly found on banners in most major metropolitan cities—and so, as with much of his oeuvre, Wallace’s trademark pastiche technique displaces the acuity of the photographic image. The intersection, and the cultural venue which resides alongside it, are no longer situated within reality, as they have been (quite literally) bracketed within the framework of commercial design. This framework reflects back, and alludes to, the artificiality of the image; the work’s title is a misnomer, since it could just as well be an intersection in any other American city.

This assumes, however, that one does not recognize the superficial structure of the concert hall, designed by Frank Gehry, which is key to the work’s interconnection with those placed next to it. From the perspective of the camera lens, the curved facade of the gallery loses its autonomous structure and instead comes to symbolize content far beyond the image’s frame. In fact, it resembles an ovoid shape—the same ovoid shape which art historian Bill Holm famously classified as a typical design feature of North West Coast First Nations imagery. Two ovoids are reciprocated in Yuxweluptun’s Lost Legends, immediately ajacent to Intersection. They interface with Holm’s account of First Nations art history, as well as minimalist painting. By Holm’s account, the ovoid functions as a compositional device which encloses features of the subject—usually an eye or face—within the broader frame of the composition as a whole. In this sense, the ovoid has always been seen as a tertiary gesture within art historical discourse, supplementing and harmonizing the image as a whole. It’s only in recent decades that artists like Yuxweluptun have criticized this conception of the ovoid, and by extension, the formalist criticism Holm galvanized.

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In Lost Legends, the ovoid does not supplement the subject—it is the subject. The black and red ovoids are devoid of figurative content, existing only on their own terms. In this way, Yuxweluptun’s isolation of the ovoid challenges our notion of the symbolic; for in decontextualizing it, Yuxweluptun makes the ovoid into a formalist subject, and compels its evasion from the symbolic in pursuit of a purely gestural being. One is tempted to view the ovoid as emblematic of North West Coast First Nations visual culture, but then, this is to arbitrarily categorize and impose upon the ovoid. We are unable to escape from the will to contextualize in this instance; yet, for non-indigenous artists, such a visual gesture would be commonly interpreted as a form of minimalist abstraction (as, for instance, in the work of the surrealist Juan Miro). The uneasiness with which Yuxweluptun suspends the conventions of First Nation imagery is further complicated by the surface texture of the painting; the ground has not been applied evenly (it is arguably the case that the hyper-smoothness of many contemporary First Nations paintings, by artists such as Robert Davidson or Sonny Assu, increases their market value, since such industrialized equivocation harmonizes nicely with the pristine decor of upmarket homes). Rather, Lost Legends’ superfice is rough and turbulent, undermining the stability of the formal subjects. Thus, there are bivalent meanings to which the work’s title alludes. The absence of specified content—for these are empty, lonely ovoids—reflects the historical estrangement of First Nations communities from their heritage. But there is a more interesting sense in which the title might be interpreted: the legends in question are not those which reside in the ancient history of the First Nations, but rather, the contrived legends of “indigenous art” that historians have attributed to the visual culture of these Nations.

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The will to symbolize is perhaps most apparent, however, in Rufus Moody’s model Haida House. Over the course of his life, Moody worked exclusively in argillite, a carbonaceous material historically available only to the Haida people. Prior to the arrival of the first Europeans in the late eighteenth century, argillite was used only for the creation of ceremonial pipes. However, when early traders encountered the Haida, they expressed great interest in the shiny, alluring mineral. Shortly after, a thriving argillite industry emerged, as Haida artists produced a variety of different objects—boxes, poles, miniature sculptures, and many different kinds of pipe—to meet the growing demand for argillite art. Thus, unlike other elements of material culture among the First Nations of the North West Coast—such as cedar masks or blankets—the provenance of argillite carving over the past two centuries lies almost exclusively in tourist and collector’s markets. Most buyers of argillite art are unlikely to know this, however, and one speculates whether the perceived value of the work would change if this was shown to be the case.

Moody’s sculpture is a striking, partially stylized rendition of a traditional Haida longhouse. In front of the house reside a series of intricately detailed totem poles, some of them inlaid with abalone. The sides of the house are decorated with Haida imagery, though the roof and facade have a refined sharpness to them that evokes the technical demands of an architect’s mock-up. The result is a stark, beautiful, highly organized and rigorous composition—the work of a master carver.

The discipline of Moody’s model would seem to contrast severely with the spontaneity of Yuxweluptun’s abstraction, but there is a crucial sense in which they connect. Whereas Yuxweluptun’s work speaks to both a mythology (indigenous or otherwise) that exists beyond the frame of the image, Moody’s work is the instantiation of that mythology, i.e., it exists for the enjoyment of a market that thrives upon the very notion of mythology—even if that mythology’s origins lie within the market itself. Moody’s house is a token of sorts—it engenders the aesthetic appreciation of Haida material culture, yet abstracts away from the social and spiritual circumstances which inculcate that culture. The house is isolated, and the totem poles—which are situated far closer to the house than they would normally be in reality—do not exist to embody the memories of ancestors or communal narratives, or at least, not directly; they exist for the consumption of the collector.

This is not to suggest, however, that a market-oriented object cannot express indigenous concepts, mythologies, and narratives—on the contrary, one could argue that the market enables these elements of indigenous culture to thrive and gain new life. Nevertheless, both Yuxweluptun and Moody’s work engage with and explore a non-indigenous mythology within the framework of an indigenous culture.

Moody’s work also thrives upon its juxtaposition with Wallace’s. Historically, the Haida longhouse has served not only as a living space, but as a presentation and performance site, in which ritual ceremonies are conducted according to cultural protocol. The same could be said for Disney Concert Hall in Wallace’s Los Angeles Intersection. Conventionally, the walls of a concert hall act as a divisionary marker through which judgements of value may be appropriately relegated. The events which occur within the hall are sacred and unique; the events which occur without are merely routine. The concert hall as an institution—explicitly or otherwise—deigns to disseminate cultural values through the curation of performers and artists. Crucial here, however, is how both Wallace and Moody act to enclose and subvert the performance space’ as a framing device; for in both works, the architectural structure of the subject is distinguished from its institutional function. In Intersection, bands of red paint crop the photographic subject; in this way, the Disney Concert Hall is sundered from its subjectivity, becoming instead a purely formal shape, almost an abstraction. Dehabilitated, the hall can no longer command authority as an institutional venue. In Untitled Model, meanwhile, we observe that the Haida house has been decontextualized; whereas a Haida house would normally be situated within a village community of perhaps over thirty homes, here, its communality has been lost, as has its connection with the individuals who might have lived in it. It is is a platonic ideal—an archetypal structure that stipulates the recurrent characteristics of a certain object, but is itself not an object that can be found in any reality. In this way, the Haida house, too, loses its historical function as a community centre and as a repository of wealth and knowledge, and becomes a purely visual subject.

The Lost Legends of Yuxweluptun, then, extend largely to the trio of works as a whole. Wallace’s legend of history and Moody’s legend of the art market are interconnected with, and derive from, the legends of myth itself—legends which earn their own autonomy on Yuxweluptun’s canvas. In one sense, it’s problematic that these works have been placed together—for in their juxtaposition, we see the disenfranchisement of the institutional and discursive disciplines that shape the frame of the gallery space itself. Yet, one could argue that such comparisons don’t diminish the affective capabilities of the art, nor the institution’s role in disseminating knowledge—for the curators of the exhibit have granted to these objects a life far beyond their distinct disciplines, histories, and market trajectories. They are free to learn from each other’s stories.

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