Selected Shorts

Mythic Beings: Spirit Art of the Northwest Coast

by Gary Wyatt (University of Washington Press, $22.95) When the Royal British Columbia Museum mounted "The Legacy" 20 years ago, the revival of the indigenous art and craft traditions of the Northwest Coast was barely a decade old; and despite some impressive individual works, it was still not at all clear if the powerful spirit driving the art of the sculptors, weavers, and mask makers of the Haida, Tsimshian, Salish, and other First Nations could survive in an age when art is a commodity, not an expression of community. Works here and there among the 75 so beautifully illustrated in Mythic Beings release a faint aroma of Tiffany or Disney, but the vast majority suggest that for more than 30 artists of First Nation lineage, tradition is powerfully alive—releasing, not constraining, their individual imaginations. To the nonspecialist, many of the works illustrated here seem thoroughly traditional. The wolf headdress sculpted, painted, and trimmed by the great Clayoquot woodcarver Joe David, for example, was actually created for a 1991 potlatch ceremony. The materials and techniques David uses in Portrait of My Grandmother are equally traditional, but employed for a quite untraditional purpose: the honoring and celebration of an unique, beloved individual. Haida artist Robert Davidson—among the most honored working in traditional materials—is equally flexible in his approach. His "chief's seat" in painted red cedar is classic Haida ceremonial furniture. His powerful mask of the wild man Gagiid, however, is as much exploration of a mood as depiction of a demon: The classic strokes of red and black paint outlining eyes, nostril, and lips against the smooth bare alder suggest a state halfway between supernatural and human. His Spirit of Cedar mask, by contrast wholly unpainted, is shamanic in a wholly personal way: an expression of rage and grief about the devastation of the old-growth forests of Haida Gwaii by commercial logging. The most impressive works are those that initially seem untraditional, like the "raven's eye" of dark-stained cedar and cast and mirrored glass by Susan Point of the Coast Salish. At first glance the same artist's Frog and Ladybug, with its etched glass, polished granite base, and stainless steel "spindle," looks like stock Pilchuck product: big, decorative, and pointless. It takes time for the layers of reference to water, stone, and living things to shimmer up to the surface. It's much the same with the collective of works assembled here: Their individual power and beauty grows in relation to our awareness of how each is rooted in the life and past of its creator. ROGER DOWNEY On the Bus with Rosa Parks

by Rita Dove (W.W. Norton, $21) Readers who enjoyed Dove's Thomas and Beulah will appreciate her most recent book's opening and closing sections, which make engaging characters and their settings come alive in sequences of linked poems. In "Cameos," a husband and wife find, lose, and find each other again in their marriage, while their children love and resist their parents and each other until they grow away. All four characters are shaped by their familial yesses and nos, and the quirky stanzas flutter down the pages like strung-together flags of discordant experience. In the concluding Rosa Parks sequence, a woman faces the false grin of an American '50s bus driver and lets her dime, "the bright lady," fall into the clinking metal box ("Climbing In"). Then she lets herself fall into the machinery of criminal justice so others may rise and ride ("Rosa"). But readers who also had high expectations of our former poet laureate will be disappointed. The stronger poems verge on sentimentality, and most of the book is an unremarkable miscellany with preaching ("Our situation is intolerable, but what's worse/is to sit here and do nothing"). Even the origin of the appealing title turns out to be inane: Dove says in the end notes that she was riding a chartered bus at a 1995 conference with her daughter, who spotted a venerable African American personage aboard and said, "'Hey, we're on the bus with Rosa Parks!'" Here Dove proudly tells us that the title of her book, which we thought was meant to honor the woman whose calm, courageous defiance on an Alabama bus in 1955 sparked the Civil Rights movement, commemorates her daughter's forgettable remark, too. JUDY LIGHTFOOT Boggs: A Comedy of Values

by Lawrence Weschler (University of Chicago Press, $22) In case we still believe, in these times of fluctuating economy, political scandal, and a society cleft between the very rich and the very poor, that artists exist irrelevantly at the margins of things, we have J.S.G. Boggs to show us otherwise. Boggs is a kind of court jester of the art world: He creates intricate near-replicas of hard currency and then he tries to spend them—by getting a waiter or shopkeeper to accept the drawings in lieu of cash while he sits back and watches the fun that ensues. For Boggs the "art" is not only in his gorgeously rendered dollars, pounds, and guilders, but also in the sheer performance of the transaction. The attendant questions that his work raises are articulated by author Lawrence Weschler in an excellent new book about the artist: "What is art? What is money? What is one worth, and what the other? What is worth worth? How does value itself arise, and live, and gutter out?" Although Boggs' popularity has skyrocketed over the last decade, it has not been all fun. In England, where he lived as an expatriate for a number of years, he was accused of forgery and brought to trial, and much of his work was confiscated. While observing the trial in London, Weschler notices the allegorical figure of Justice in the courtroom. "It occurred to me," he writes, "that in this standard icon Justice is portrayed as having recourse to a money changer's scales as the device for metaphorically judging the worthiness of competing claims and values. How would Boggs' bills balance off against the real thing in the days ahead?" Boggs is, no doubt, an interesting figure, but it's Weschler's delight in his subject that carries the book. He investigates every angle of the artist's work, from the history of money to the value of art after the 1987 stock market crash. He accompanies Boggs on a mission to spend some of his work in New York and, most eloquently, he muses on what Boggs means: ". . . Boggs is engaged in philosophical disruptions, in provoking brief, momentary tears in the ordinary seamless fabric of taken-for-granted mundanity. . . . Boggs throws us back on first things." EMILY HALL

 
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