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Review

Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse

By Barbara Brotherton, Sheila Farr, John Haworth

Storyteller: The Art of Roy Henry Vickers

By Roy Henry Vickers

August 22, 2014

Review By Rhys Edwards

Among the more curious phenomena within Northwest Coast contemporary art discourse is the disjunction between the careers of famed First Nations artists Robert Davidson and Roy Henry Vickers. Propitiously, the last year has marked the publication of survey books on each: Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse, the Seattle Art Museum’s catalogue for the major exhibition of the same name, and Storyteller: The Art of Roy Henry Vickers, which collects the entirety of Vickers’ prints produced from 2003 to 2013 in a single volume.

Vickers and Davidson are at the absolute height of their careers, and are masters of their respective crafts, having both been producing art for over four decades. Yet, despite their acknowledged contributions to Canadian culture (both are members of the Order of Canada and of British Columbia) and their concurrent emergence in the rapid growth of the Northwest Coast indigenous art market in the 1970s, Davidson commands far greater attention within critical art circles. His show at the Seattle Art Museum (operated co-jointly with the National Museum of the American Indian in New York) is only the latest in a long line of solo exhibitions at major institutions. By contrast, Vickers has yet to receive any sort of retrospective; and while Davidson frequently appears in texts and exhibitions that commemorate or analyze the trajectory of First Nations art history, Vickers receives only the briefest of mentions, if any at all.

The disjunction between the two is particularly salient in the context of these new publications. Abstract Impulse features a variety of texts that strive to convey the significance of Davidson’s latest works in both breadth and depth; the directors of SAM and NMAI introduce the artist, while essays by SAM curator of Native American art Barbara Brotherton and critic Sheila Farr explore the formal influences of Haida art on Davidson’s practice as well as the broader historical context that Davidson both emerges and distinguishes himself from. John Haworth, the director of the New York branch of the NMAI, provides further analysis via an interview with the artist, as well as discussion of selected works.

 Storyteller, in comparison, lacks any form of dialogue. Oral historian and biographer Robert Budd and Eagle Aerie gallery director Jennifer Steven both provide laudatory summaries of Vickers’ character as an individual, but have little to say about his practice. The thematic focus on Vickers’ character continues into the bulk of the text itself, wherein Vickers discusses the subject of each of his works by way of personal anecdote. It is apparent that Vickers is much more comfortable describing himself in any number of roles — fireman, fisherman, family member, or, indeed, archetypal storyteller — than as an artist.

Therein lies the distinction, and partly the reason for the disparity between the two artists: whereas Storyteller is the most recent in a series of books written by Vickers, all of which illuminate the author’s personal narrative, Abstract Impulse emphasizes Davidson’s creative self-interrogation, and how this interrogation has contributed successfully to the revitalization of Haida culture. In his essay “Painting and the Social History of British Columbia,” artist Robert Linsley argued that, by circulating notions of indigenous storytelling and attachment to the land, Vickers participates in the same “mystification” of indigenous culture that non-native modernist painters (such as Jack Shadbolt and Emily Carr) circulated in their own work, and as such, cannot be appreciated as representative of Native culture.

But this simplistic division — between rigorous creative practitioner and mass-market mascot — is not as clean-cut as these books might imply. For one thing, Linsley goes on to mention that Davidson himself participates in the same sort of mystification as Vickers. In making objects that simultaneously serve a ceremonial function, yet appeal to collectors of fine art, Linsley argues that Davidson perpetuates the same marketing mores as Vickers.

More importantly, Vickers’ own contributions to the growth of the indigenous art market (and by extension, his role in the dissemination of First Nations culture), as well as his own formal development as an artist, have been largely ignored by critics and historians. In her contribution to Abstract Impulse, Barbara Brotherton notes that Davidson helped found the Coast Artists Guild in 1977; a footnote reveals, however, that it was Vickers who first served as the president of the organization. The significance of the Guild, and Vickers’ role in it, is more closely detailed by Karen Duffek in her essay “Value Added: The Northwest Coast Art Market since 1965.” The Guild was the first artist-run institution to advocate for quality control in the market, and it was Vickers who articulated the values of the Guild in an essay for the catalogue that accompanied its first release of prints. Duffek also notes that the Eagle Aerie gallery in Tofino — which was constructed exclusively for Vickers’ work — was one of the first commercial galleries in British Columbia to promote art of its kind. As such, Vickers was instrumental in promoting the recognition of First Nations printmaking as a legitimate medium of creative expression, and furthering the demand that it be treated as such by the market.

 It is regrettable, then, that Storyteller does little to convey this significance; but then, any reference to the relationship between the market and Vickers’ art — even if it were laudable in a historical or social context — would impinge upon the story Vickers wishes to tell.

REFERENCES

Duffek, Karen, 2013. “Value Added: The Northwest Coast Art Market since 1965.” Native Art of the Northwest Coast: A Changing History of Ideas, edited by Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Jennifer Kramer, and Ki-Ke-In. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Linsley, Robert, 2011. “Painting and the Social History of British Columbia.” Vancouver Anthology, edited by Stan Douglas. Vancouver: Talonbooks and the Or Gallery.

Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse
Barbara Brotherton, Sheila Farr, John Haworth
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013. 104 pp. $40.00 paper

Storyteller: The Art of Roy Henry Vickers
Roy Henry Vickers
Madeira Park: Harbour, 2014. 240 pp. $49.95 cloth