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Issue 131

Close Readings: Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Unceded Territories at University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver May 10 – October 16, 2016
by Richard William Hill

There’s this power trip of being an art critic, they think you should bow down to them. But fuck them.1
— Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun

In Lawrence’s work there’s the bold statement, but there’s also the possibility of, or the opportunity for, change.2
— Tania Willard

There are many things about Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s paintings that rub me the wrong way and they are all present in this marvellous career retrospective. The compositions are often awkward and unsettling, populated with human and supernatural figures that at times appear more mechanical or insectile than anthro-or zoomorphic. Painting styles shift jarringly within a single canvas. Colour combinations are often so garish they hurt the eyes. The allegory tends to range from merely heavy-handed to outright assaultive. And if all of this is too subtle for you, there will be what one critic described as an “up-yours”3 title to deliver the final blow.

That said, after weeks of close looking and careful reading, I have become convinced, like many people, that despite this – no, in part because of this – Yuxweluptun is an important artist. Your eyes may often be hurting, but you can’t look away from the worlds he creates.

What is so wonderfully confounding about Yuxweluptun’s art – it makes it almost invincible– is the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to so many key dichotomies that surround (you might say, compose) Indigenous art and culture as we currently understand it. He is: a modernist or perhaps a satirist of modernism; a surrealist, but no, he has his own term: “visionist;” he is a reviver of tradition and a modern transgressor of tradition; he is rooted in his Salish heritage and he is a rebellious individualist; he is an important painter, whose “technique is rudimentary”4 or evidences “skill and style;”5 when asked about his painting, he will lecture you on colonial politics. Here are the facts everyone agrees on. Yuxweluptun is of Cowichan (Hul’q’umi’num Coast Salish) heritage on his father’s side and Okanagan (Sylix) heritage on his mother’s. He identifies particularly with his Salish heritage and has been involved in longhouse ceremonial culture since his youth. After graduating in 1983 from Emily Carr – then still an art college – he went on to create a body of work that initially brought together Northwest Coast imagery with pop art and the realist strain of surrealism. In these paintings, human and non-human persons populate a contested colonial landscape that is typically ravaged by resource extraction and other forms of environmental destruction.

Adding additional complication, the Northwest Coast graphic tradition that Yuxweluptun draws on – the characteristic formlines, ovoids and u-shapes – are derived from Northern Northwest Coast traditions that would not have been part of the artist’s traditional culture6 In the mid-1990s, Yuxweluptun began a series of abstract paintings based on the ovoid shape (an oval that swells out at the top and sides and curves in across the bottom) that is a fundamental design element of Northern two-dimensional art. He sent this work out into the world in modernist high style: as a movement complete with a manifesto and a neologism ending in “ism” – ovoidism.7 Most recently he has added a series of glossy three-quarter-length caricature portraits of the rich and powerful, his “Super-Predator” series.

Unceded Territories is not organized chronologically or according to any other comprehensive series of themes. There is a room dealing with residential schools and another that includes a wall of ink drawings, many of which were made before the paintings. Otherwise work from the various series is interspersed throughout. The strategy echoes the art, which is what you discover by mixing things up. The paucity of work from the 1980s is the only thing that throws the complete picture a little off-balance.8

On the surface, Yuxweluptun’s art and language is declarative. As Charlotte Townsend-Gault writes, “Free interpretation is deflected. In uncompromising terms you are told what to make of it.”9 It is often argued that he answers questions about the form of his work with political declarations because they are one and the same. As Robin Laurence writes, “When he talks politics to me, he’s talking art to me.”10

But this assertion has two sides to it. If the art and politics are inseparable, then not only can we not dispense with the politics in favour of aesthetic appreciation, but, necessarily, the aesthetic choices in the work must have political consequences. In this case, the artist’s deflection of discussions about the form of his work for a literal discussion of his political subject matter is not necessarily a triumph of politics over formalism, but potentially an evasion of the political implications of his form.

As Townsend-Gault notes, there is tension between the “determinate meanings,” and the simultaneous tendency to “participate gleefully in an interweaving of multiple codes and fragments of codes more commonly associated with open-ended or ambivalent readings.”11 This distinction does not break down entirely into a tidy schism between determinate subject matter and restless formal traffic, but I think that attention to form tends to illicit more complex, slipperier meanings.

This partly comes down to a distinction between capital and small “p” politics that is constantly elided in discussion of Indigenous art. On the big political issues – land claims, political sovereignty, environmental destruction, racism – we want to make unequivocal statements and take sides. But when it comes to the politics of art and culture, things are messier and the traffic between cultures is constant, even as it so often remains vexed. The more we try to purify our cultural space, the more the contradictions with actual experience multiply. Scott Watson sees Yuxweluptun’s art opening up this conversation. In the past, he writes, “discussion … in aesthetic terms served to jam the signals that might have come from such contradictions. That is, until Yuxweluptun’s paintings gave these contradictions visual form.”12

Cathy Mattes recognized that we might productively map this traffic through a consideration of the politics of translation.13 She wrote: “his art is a translation of modernism, created from the perspective of an artist who is Aboriginal.”14 According to Christina Ritchie, Yuxweluptun has also since referred to his practice as “simultaneous translation between one culture and another.”15 I want to take this idea seriously and see how it holds up from various perspectives. From the outset, Yuxweluptun’s phrase “simultaneous translation” suggests that more is occurring than a translation of modernism into an Indigenous visual language. If we look at a few artworks we can put that to the test.

The brilliant early painting Haida Hot Dog (1984) is a good place to start. Here the artist runs together a glossy pop art style with Northern Northwest Coast graphic conventions and classic pop subject matter. The title gives us a clue to an element of “translation” that is sometimes over-looked in his work. It is, after all, a “Haida” hotdog painted by a Salish artist. In this instance, we can accept the oft made claim that the artist is parodying Northern Northwest Coast style – as manifest in the arts and crafts tradition – to show how it must be transgressed and travestied somewhat in order to address his own experiences of colonialism and contemporary life, including popular culture. As he put it: “You can’t carve a beer bottle on a totem pole.”16 It should be stressed that therefore both visual languages used in the work are “native” to the artist – he learned each growing up – yet neither is a legacy of his Salish heritage.

Haida Hot Dog also suggests that there are differences between visual and linguistic languages that need to be accounted for. In fact it is evident that we need to think again about the phrase “simultaneous translation.” What is simultaneous with what? When translating languages this means the translation is occurring in real time. Here I think it means two visual languages are being spoken simultaneously in the same work; but which is the original and which the translation? The question does not even seem to make sense. They have been layered together surprisingly seamlessly. Indeed, what distinguishes Haida Hot Dog from so many other Yuxweluptun works is the way in which the artist finds so many visual “cognates” between the two traditions. This simultaneous doubleness is not captured in how the artist describes the significance of a hotdog. He says, “a wiener in an Indian hand is an Indian hot dog. Hot dogs are food on the reserves.”17 This makes it sound as though hot dog eating is a subversive act of appropriation, but the work suggests only that these worlds do already overlap, like it or not.

Stylistic tension is amped up in the figure-in-the-landscape works, such as Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky (1990). Here, and in all these works, the two visual languages– Northern Northwest Coast and figures-in-a-landscape surrealism – are not usually in translation, but “spoken” simultaneously. Sometimes they blend into or make space for each other, but often they clash mightily.

Consider the way he brings the flatness of Northwest Coast graphics into illusionistic space. The head of the “Red Man” is an almost flat ovoid. But that flat ovoid then curves back away from the scientists (possibly in disgust or to avoid exposure to ultra violet radiation coming through the hole in the ozone layer). We see both one side of it and part of the other, which has curved around. This means that although the ovoid remains flat, it is being treated as a flat object that can move and be seen from different perspectives within an illusionistic space. The choice to retain this flatness is clearly deliberate, since the canon of Northwest Coast carving is replete with models for bringing ovoid designs fully into three dimensions. But then he would not have been able to stage such a witty, jarring clash of visual conventions.

Townsend-Gault suggests that Yuxweluptun is not merely putting us into a “futile state of discomfort,” but creating “a spiritual shock,” that can recover and put to use Salish ideas of a union of nature and culture in which humans might recognize its animation by spirit and behave in less destructive ways.18 As we have seen, this shock often arises from the awkward culture clashes that occur at the level of form. Robert Linsley claims, “It is not possible to know how far his work is spontaneously derived style, and how far it is conscious travesty,” but nevertheless, “if Yuxweluptun’s pictures met already existing standards of beauty, they would have nothing to say.”19

Townsend-Gault’s reading reminds us that in these paintings there is a dynamic of translation that we did not see in Haida Hot Dog, in which the artist’s Salish heritage was not a subject of the work. Here we see the artist translating Salish cosmology, which is traditionally not shared outside the culture, into the widely recognized Northern style. This is the most audacious move of his career and raises real questions about how the Northwest Coast style functions as a visual language. If Northwest Coast art is a visual language in the full sense then its visual signifiers will be tied by conventional use to signified content held in common by native “speakers.” If it is set free as a “style” to be applied to a variety of situations (as, to be fair, it often seems to be in the Northwest Coast tradition itself, hence the common difficulty of even master artists definitively identifying iconography) then we are in quite a remarkable space of invention and appropriation.

But perhaps, as curator Karen Duffek implies, we are all “speaking” a modern version of North-west Coast visual languages. The main terms we use to describe the style were all coined by Bill Holm (who was not Indigenous) in the mid-20th century as the art was being revived after a period of social and legal repression. “Maybe,” Duffek writes, “two-dimensional painted images, which were meant to be interpreted within ceremony and oratory, were able to convey spatial relationships beyond their surface in ways entirely foreign to contemporary eyes.”20 Perhaps it is the very detachment of these signifiers from direct reference that made them ideal for Yuxweluptun’s project of translation. They allow him to render Salish cosmology both visible and opaque; we must take him at his word that he is even representing it, how would we know? He has turned the Northern style into a private language, which, as Wittgenstein said, is no language at all. So we are foiled again in pinning him down.

I love the way this all collides with artists’ assertions of modernism. Indigenous artists of Yuxweluptun’s generation had to defend their right to be contemporary. He says, “My hands are not tied [by tradition]. Artists’ should challenge everything.”21 And: “I’m a modernist. I’m not making Native art, and I don’t claim to.”22 These assertions were tricky to articulate because of the conflation of modernity with Western culture and the implication that embracing modernity was embracing the assimilationist agenda of the state. I suspect this is why these claims so often arrive double-sided, with seeming contradictions attached: “Like those contemporary artists before me, I felt the need to break from traditional forms, and have been at the forefront of amalgamating the past with the present.”23 The implication is, as Townsend-Gault suggested, that traditional form – the “Native art” he claims not to be making is that of the Northwest Coast tourist market, which must be transgressed in order both to express the violent realities of colonialism, but also to, in some form, use these radical tools to reconnect with traditional Salish culture and values.

But his appropriation of the Northern Northwest Coast graphic tradition surely extends beyond a strategic travestying of its conventions. If it was simply that, he could have moved on, his task long ago completed. Instead, with “Ovoidism,” he has lovingly doubled down on this appropriation, using the signature shape as the basis for his own movement. “I am the originator of the contemporary art form of ovoidism,”24 he tells us, which becomes a means “to simplify a way to discuss my mind and how I feel,”25 and to “intellectualize place, space and Native reason.” Is Ovoidism ironic satire or does the artist actually believe he has found his personal and cultural essence in this double appropriation of modernism and the ovoid? The very gesture, given who he is and what he intends, surely nudges the act from its declared modernity to postmodern critique. Yet he seems sincere in claiming modernist freedom and his heritage and his right to disavow aspects of both as necessary. This is what I mean when I say the work is invincible. I guess he needed it to be.

I understand that. My most personal entry into many of these works is through my experiences writing and drawing my own comics as a teenager. This taught me how powerful immersing yourself in a world of your own devising could be. For me it was a world in which the traumas of adolescence could be worked through. (Needless to say my comic book super hero had a girlfriend before I did.) Contemplating the psychological underpinnings of world building in Yuxweluptun’s work does not blunt its political impact or suggest his approach is juvenile. The trauma his work addresses is real, as, surely, was the need to find an Indigenous body to represent it and a landscape for those bodies to claim. It had to be a form that could encompass his political outrage and also read as both defiantly and subversively “Indigenous” as necessary. I am not surprised that the acts of appropriation necessary to visualize that world led to a kind of a promiscuity without bounds, in which the visual languages of the other – Haida or Daliesque – are entered and made one’s own. Whomever else the ovoid belongs to, Yuxweluptun has, after all these years, his own deeply personal and idiosyncratic claim to it. Likewise his (post)modernity.

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