Lyle Wilson's Paint is an outstanding cultural experience

April 16, 2019

by Robin Laurence on Apr 9, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Paint: The Painted Works of Lyle Wilson
At the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art until September 15

When Lyle Wilson was artist-in-residence at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, visitors would frequently ask him about his origins. When the Vancouver-based artist said he was Haisla, they would respond, “Oh, yes, Haida.” “No,” he would patiently reply, “Haisla, from Kitamaat Village.” Then he would refer them to a black-and-white map in the museum’s Great Hall—with often indifferent results.

Wilson recounts this story in the catalogue to the exhibition Paint, explaining why he was inspired to create his own colourful, highly detailed, and visually engaging map First Nations of British Columbia. Framed by a wondrous assortment of stylized creatures and crest figures, including Killer Whale, Bear, and Wolf, it identifies the traditional territories of some four dozen First Nations as they are determined by language. (He has delineated “contentious” territorial boundaries in a Morse code sequence of dots and dashes, signalling “SOS”.) This map, painted in acrylic on mat board, hangs next to an equally compelling painting of Haisla territory, executed on cedar panel. It details indigenous place names, landmarks, and trading trails, and again is surrounded by a lively crowd of creatures.

The hand-painted maps, hanging near the entrance to the exhibition, speak eloquently to Wilson’s practice: his intense scholarship and involvement in projects of cultural recovery, his technical prowess, his willingness to take on unexpected forms, and his visual imagination. Together with text-based works, such as ABCs Reconstituted, an English alphabet composed of abstracted Northwest Coast creatures and graphic-design elements, they also reveal his abiding interest in preserving Haisla language and oral history while playfully experimenting with how they are depicted visually—and how they translate linguistically.

The exhibition was organized by the Maple Ridge Art Gallery, where it debuted last spring. Happily for travel-challenged Vancouverites, Paint recently opened at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art. Although its focus is Wilson’s painted works, executed over the past 20 years, a small selection of his sculptures—such as frontlets, model totem poles, and a ceremonial mask—is also included to provide insight into his practice. “Because I work in wood and metal, I know that painting is as challenging as these other mediums,” Wilson writes in the catalogue. “Yet the inventiveness and skill involved in painting in Northwest Coast styles [are] not widely recognized.”

Wilson is also intrigued by the ways painting demonstrates the rhythm, sweep, and peculiarities of the human hand. In this exhibition, his hand may be seen in a complex array of abstracted Northwest Coast design elements combined with western landscape and seascape genres. An example is Coastal Scene, a 1996 painting on mat board that busily poses Eagle, Raven, and a multi-rayed Sun in the sky above a canoe and a sea teeming with life. By contrast, a more simplified rhythm is evident in After A1779, a small painting on red cedar that reproduces a detail of an ambitious house pole Wilson had made and sold.

The 2010 painting, he writes, is his “souvenir of that carving project”, whose title is derived from the museum identification number on the old Haisla house pole that originally inspired it. Here, the artist demonstrates both the strength and sinuousness of his painted line, and the fluid command he has over his medium.

Paint, the catalogue, is an illuminating companion to the exhibition. Wilson beautifully describes his ideas, his interests, and his imagery. For instance, he writes about how the image of a skate in Bahgwanah: The Origins demonstrates the possible source of the Northwest Coast design element known as the “ovoid”. He also writes about Progression, a four-part painting on a bentwood box, as it reveals the evolution of “classic” Northwest Coast design style from its origins among the Coast Salish people.

Despite its somewhat mashed-up installation at the Bill Reid Gallery (the fault of the building, not the staff), Paint is an outstanding cultural experience. Be there.

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