Throughout his 60-year career, painter Jack Shadbolt has experimented with a wide variety of styles and subjects. But he keeps returning to the images and symbols of West Coast native art. The University of British Columbia (UBC) Museum of Anthropology has just mounted an exhibition exploring that aspect of the work of Shadbolt, who is one of the West Coast’s—and Canada’s—premiere artists. Jack Shadbolt and the Coastal In-
dian Image is a daring and, at times, daunting exhibition of 50 canvases—11 of them created by the 77-year-old artist expressly for the exhibition—juxtaposed with 15 related West Coast Indian artifacts. The show opened on June 17 and runs until Nov. 30. At a time when indigenous Indian culture continues to struggle for its survival, the exhibition presents one of the attempts in Canadian art history to bridge the two solitudes of native and non-native worlds.
The unique show was the idea of curator Marjorie Halpin, an anthropologist at UBC specializing in the art and rituals of Northwest Coast Indians. She says that Shadbolt, who became intrigued by West Coast native art at the outset of his career, was deeply touched by Indian symbolism. Born in England in 1909, he moved with his parents to Victoria at the age of three and began drawing the masks and totem poles on display in the Victoria Museum when he was 16. Later, in the 1930s, he studied Emily Carr’s brood-
ing paintings of Indian culture on the brink of extinction. During the Second World War he served in Europe as a war artist. Although he reached out to the international art world in the late 1940s, embracing styles from primitivism and cubism to abstract expressionism, he kept returning to the Indian imagery that had inspired him in his youth. Said Halpin: “Jack grew up with these images. His art is most powerful when he comes home.”
By taking 19th-century Indian artifacts off their dusty museum shelves and combining them with Shadbolt’s electrically colored abstract paintings, Halpin has created a dynamic new environment for both. That is apparent in the show’s first display, which effectively pairs an eerily lit Southern Kwagiutl mask and Shadbolt’s arresting Red Knight (1947). The painting is an abstract, richly colored oil in which he has taken the elemental forms of a similar mask and reassembled them into a coat of medieval armor. Red Knight uses the mask’s evocation of death to articulate the horror of war.
The artistic link between past and present, between British Columbia’s white and nonwhite cultures, are most clearly defined in The Place (1972), a three-panel watercolor and mixed media. Lyrical and semi-abstract, the bottom of the central panel of The Place depicts a mask from the Bella Coola tribe floating in front of a menacing
landscape. The work is darkly intense, enlivened with splashes of vibrant orange. Alongside the painting, Halpin has installed an object made of wood, copper, hair and canvas—the actual mask that inspired the piece.
The Valley Beyond, one of the new works Shadbolt created for the exhibition, is similarly haunting. Painted in acrylics, it depicts a mask hovering over trees and communicates a strong sense of the Indians’ connection to the
land. Such paintings have more impact than Shadbolt’s explicitly political works—such as Elegy for an Island, another piece created for the exhibition. It is a surrealistic acrylic on two panels featuring a double-headed eagle, its talons extended, looming over a forest of stumps. The work conveys the artist’s support for Indian claims to Meares Island, currently contested by logging companies. But Elegy is too heavy-handed: it gives viewers the impression that Shadbolt is paternalistically using Indian images.
Jack Shadbolt and the Coastal Indian Image is an affecting, visually rich exhibition. It is also intellectually and emotionally demanding, forcing viewers to shift constantly between two distinct worlds. Said Halpin: “I wanted to show a conversation between two cultures.” Viewers of the show have the unique privilege of witnessing a rare and provocative exchange.
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