July 7 to September 3, 2000
(Sponsored by BC Hydro & Power, Jim and Noreen Rustad and The Vancouver Foundation.)
The project, Heart of Darkness, began after the death of Jack Shadbolt, in November 1998, as a way of paying tribute to him and his contribution to the visual arts in British Columbia. His relationship to Emily Carr was a key element in Shadbolt’s own conception of his role as a regional modernist. The two artists had a complex, sometimes difficult relationship.
They first met around the time of Carr’s exhibition at the Crystal Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1930, when Shadbolt was twenty-one and Carr, fifty-five. Shadbolt’s friend and fellow artist, Max Maynard, had met Carr first and took Shadbolt to meet her. For the next several years, whenever Shadbolt was in Victoria, he and Maynard would visit Carr on Saturday afternoons. He later wrote of t hose years:
"I’ll never forget those canvases. Their still green forest caves with towering grey trees and quietly surging foliage... it was as though the woods were caught in the huge power of a world under t he sea. When later I used to go on sketching trips to Cowichan Lake and to the deep forests of Cathedral Cove Near Alberni... I know that Miss Carr had spoke their truth that mystery and dread and majesty. I knew that it was her own lonely inside self she had really painted."
Carr’s own letters from the time reveal an uncertainty about her young male visitors. She was suspicious of them and found them somewhat pretentious, but she also relied on their serious interest in her work.
In 1940, Shadbolt gave a lecture on Carr’s work at the University of British Columbia in which he defended her as Canada’s “first original painter,” and asked that she, and not Ontario’s Group fo Seven, be considered the foundation of modern Canadian Art. While Carr must have been pleased to hear these remarks, she was less than amused at Shadbolt’s speculations about the sexual metaphors embedded in her towering tree trunks and forest caverns.
What Carr and Shadbolt had in common, and what is most germane to our topic, was the importance both artists placed on West Coast First Nations art as the basis for a regional art of the twentieth century. Their thinking was both of its time and ahead of its time.
In the view of not just Carr and Shadbolt, but a small international group of artists and anthropologists (that would include Claude Levi-Strauss, Georges Bataille and Barnett Newman), the carving traditions of the people of the West Coast had been an extraordinary artistic achievement t hat far surpassed any art made in Canada by, or in the name of Canadians of European descent. Canadian artists, in order to be truly of their place, would have to turn away from the example of Western Europe towards the example of First Nations people.
However, in the 1930S, for both Carr and Shadbolt, the achievements of First Nations art were very much a thing of the past. In the first half of the last century, First Nations people were disenfranchised and wards of a state whose policy was to assimilate them into a working-class current of the mainstream, and to eradicate their languages and way of life. Most critically, for the conditions of First Nations art, the potlatch ban had destroyed the system of patronage for art, and as it became dependent on tourists and non-native collectors, its practitioner dwindled and traditions almost dided. This was the picture Carr and Shadbolt saw.
For Carr, her admiration for native art is inextricable from her love of ruins, for she saw the monumental art of northern British Columbia in terms of a romanticization of irretrievable past glory. She also invested First Nations people and their art with all the virtues shs found lacking in the post-colonial culture of Victoria, BC circa 1900.
For Shadbolt, as for others of his generation who believed in “primitivism,” native art held the key to new relationships between art and nature, art and truth. It reflected an ancient relationship to the land, this place. Shadbolt saw great expressive power in old native carving. Perhaps he was projecting his own anxieties onto old carved wooden faces. It is almost as if he saw in those sculptures a response to his own ferocious anxieties, his obsession with the instability of form and of the violent transformation in nature. In turn, this anxiety is itself an only slightly displaced anxiety about the post-colonial condition.
Landscape painting is also about territory and property. Northrop Frye once enticed Canadian artists to take “psychic possession” of Canada’s territory in order to forge a national identity. Certainly this was Carr’s primary task – to give her public psychic ownership of British Columbia. Shadbolt saw himself continuing this artist’s mission. Much of the sense of disturbance and violence in their works has a as its extra-aesthetic, worldly source, the injustices of their time. For in British Columbia’s case, possession was always intertwined with dispossession. Thus, a kind of guilt and horror about the land and what it cost the artistic psyche to see or possess it: consequently, our Conrad-borrowed title.
Because she has been appropriated by the very sort of people she despised, Carr’s work is often presented to us as a celebration of “Supernatural British Columbia.” But such a view of Carr sleights the attention she paid not to the wilderness of nature, but the mediations between nature and culture, and nature and industry. Many of her most famous paintings are recently logged sites. In one of her paintings in this exhibition, she calls such a site, critically I think, Wasteland. Carr’s ecological consciousness and concerns bring her much closer to the protestors in our forests, than to the governments who like to name art colleges after her.
While Carr documented the forest as nature and as industry, Shadbolt became concerned with figure. He felt this was an area Carr had not explored. As an extraordinarily gifted draughtsman, he documented dilapidated buildings in Victoria and Vancouver, and the human types that lived in them. The ruination of these cities in the Depression, the quickness to which wooden buildings turned to rot in the rainforest climate, horrified and fascinated Shadbolt.
In this exhibition, we want to emphasize the relationship between Carr’s forest paintings, Shadbolt’s urban scenes, and both artists’ interest in native art.
At the time of the exhibition, February 1999, the 100 block of West Hastings in Vancouver was in a very bad way – it was the other Heart of Darkness of our title. Abandoned by commerce, the street was largely the territory of drug dealers and their messed-up clientele. This new rough scene displaced an old rough scene – for Skid Row was always where out-of-work or retired resource workers lived and drank. Or where “Indians” coming from northern and interior reserve towns were often derailed. It was where the city saw human costs of the resource extraction industry and the disenfranchisement of native people. By placing the exhibition at the OR Gallery, we wanted he work of Carr and Shadbolt to be available to a Downtown Eastside audience, an audience who might read the work in a different way. We also wanted the public in general to see how its most renowned twentieth century artists are still talking in the present tense about history and social contradictions that we have yet to address as a society.
Scott Watson, Director of Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery
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