Us and Everything: Carl Beam

Carl Beam‘s works are intensely political, employing and combining pop culture references and personal symbols and metaphors. Whether encountering several powerful pieces in the MIWSFPA, installed in the hallways, or the numerous works that made the exhibition Across This Mighty Land: A Visual Debate Carl Beam & Frederick Hagan at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery a critical and considered #Canada150 moment, Beam’s artwork is significant to many. In this respect, its fitting that the second floor of the Performing Arts Centre (a space that, of late, has installed a two story tall image by Amy Friend) features a number of his pieces.

Installed on the right hand wall as you turn, after ascending the stairs to the Joy Williams Lobby (near the glassed lounge overlooking St. Paul), there’s a mix of smaller and larger works. Like much of Beam’s work, they interrelate in dialogue with each other.

Before we get to the individual works (including pieces from his groundbreaking The Columbus Project and the later series The Whale of Our Being), I offer some background on a person who’s arguably one of the most significant Canadian artists of the later 20th century. Beam also, despite his appropriate distaste for the constricting label (often meant as a ghettoized dismissal by “real” artists) of an Indigenous artist, broke ground for artists like Ed Poitras, Ruth Cuthand, Rebecca Belmore and many others.

Born Carl Edward Migwans (1943 – 2005), he “made Canadian art history as the first artist of Native Ancestry (Ojibwe), to have his work purchased by the National Gallery of Canada as Contemporary Art. A major retrospective of his work, mounted [by the same institution], was exhibited in 2010, recognizing Beam as one of Canada’s most important artists.”His skill in various media was impressively extensive: “photographic mediums, mixed media, oil, acrylic, spontaneously scripted text on canvas, works on paper, Plexiglas, stone, cement, wood, handmade ceramic pottery, and found objects, in addition to etching, lithography, and screen process.”

I’ll offer an aside (acknowledging Beam’s legacy) with two anecdotes regarding (Canadian) institutional relationships to Indigenous artists. When Ed Poitras represented Canada at the Venice Biennial, a curator friend at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon reported a frantic exchange with the National Gallery in Ottawa, as they owned NONE of his work, and wanted to quickly remedy that oversight. Conversely, an amazing exhibit I reviewed years ago, curated by Steve Loft and Andrea Kunard, featured the works of Indigenous artists working in lens based media, from the National Gallery collection. I mention the latter (titled Steeling the Gaze) for how the artists and curators, in the labels and didactic panels, wanted to be listed by their tribal affiliations, not under the homogenizing blanket of “Canadian.” Anyone who’s ever worked in collections and institutions would goggle at that leap, from a lack of consideration to a malleable compromise.

Beam was (is) indispensable to that cultural shift, but not solely that repositioning.

Leaving the PAC, that change manifests in the wailing / gnashing of teeth by the well paid puppets of resource industries (Murphy or Mansbridge, crass or ingratiating, as they cash their oily cheques) decrying how we can’t just force pipelines through areas anymore, and might – gasp – have to negotiate or listen to the people who will – as Saskatchewan, from uranium onward – be left messes made and environments destroyed. May I don my shabby [M]Marxist hat for a moment, and ask why the only freedom that matters is the freedom to do business? Or, borrowing from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, consider an age where personal freedom is considered a sacred thing, but only for those that ALREADY possess (hmm, sounds like ownership again) it.

But your intrepid #artcriticfromhell digresses (again, always, #sorrynotsorry). Beam’s art spur this, as the night of the reception there was a panel discussion on Indigenous-Settler relations, using Short Hills as a touchstone, transcending the PAC’s “artistic” space. The speakers explored several topics, not the least being whether “we” “own the earth” or if “we” “are meant to be stewards” of the biosphere. (I recently watched IO and the main character posits that an atmospheric shift forcing a human exodus off-planet isn’t apocalyptic, but Earth saving herself by expunging us…..). The title of this sampling of Beam’s aesthetic – Us and Everything – resonates in that respect, if considered opposites, or symbiotic….

In conversation with several of the cultural coordinators at the City of St. Catharines, they hinted that there would be further adjunct / intersecting events and talks centred around the work, as these pieces are on display for nearly a year. Go see them often (before going to the Film House, hmm?). As the arguments around pipelines intensify, and we slouch – like a rough beast – towards the next federal election, or see Queen’s Park looking to monetize the Greenbelt, Beam’s work will have different things to say, or the same thing, again, perhaps. The accompanying didactic: Beam’s “work is thought-provoking and provides an opportunity for the local community to engage with his themes relating to the history of indigenous relations in North America and the human connection to the environment.”

There’s a mix of larger works and smaller ones: Beam’s recognizable usage of images both historical and contemporary is present, and the pieces stretch over nearly two decades. Beam, like many artists whom work in collage, appropriating and sampling imagery from diverse sources, also repeats some images that either previously held an iconic quality. A classic Northern Renaissance pieta – perhaps Quarton, perhaps not – is all angles and mourning. My art history degree was focused on this period, and its quite emotive. There’s an image of Hoiia-Wotoma, also known as Wolf Robe, from a 1909 photograph. This image has been used / misused and abused by many artists, sometimes acknowledging the man in Gill’s photo, sometimes not. Some argue this image – as, considering the history of colonialism, and with a nod to the Columbus Project, Hoiia-Wotoma’s image became a stereotypical symbol of the “long vanished Indian” – was the basis of the Buffalo Head or Indian Head Nickel. Several artworks feature an image of Jennifer Lopez: this had a relevance to Beam’s work at the time he made them nearly two decades ago (‘Lopez, while giving a strong voice to women…is still an agent of consumerism’, the panel claims), but also has a relevance in the public sphere since . Consider the rhetoric from George Bush II, about how the U.S. anthem simply couldn’t be sung in anything but English, or the ongoing debate about walls, immigration, and colonialism that is festering like a uniquely American (as in hypocritical) sore, south of the border…. To return to the accompanying statement: Areas of Beam’s work explore relations between Western and Indigenous peoples and tensions that exist in those relationships.

All the works have accompanying text, but nothing too long nor dense. The writing offers points of access or consideration, not solely in an artistic context. In speaking to several younger individuals after the panel discussion, many were amazed at there having been a time in “pop culture”, especially music, that wasn’t heavily informed (and, ahem, improved, as diverse voices always will, in any creative medium) by Latino, Hispanic or (with A Tribe Called Red recently playing the PAC) Indigenous voices in many languages telling stories both unique and universal. The titles of respective prints hint at Beam’s intention. Untitled (Jennifer the Conqueror) is one of the works employing an iconic image of Lopez; Untitled (Sitting Bull Pieta) incorporates an historical shot of Sitting Bull (also known as Húŋkešni, undefeated in battle by the U.S. Army and assassinated, argued by some historians, in a manner that would make the C.I.A. in Central and South America proud); and many other poignant works like Untitled (Mountain Glaciers). I mention the latter as the curator’s text asks whether, ‘aside from in myths and legends, is it possible to move a mountain?’ This reminded me of one of my favourite lines of St. Paul (shush, #artcriticfromhell isn’t a ‘christian’, as I’ve read the bible, and have a minor in theology, so I know better). If I speak in the tongues of men and angles, but have not love, I am but a clanging gong and tingling cymbal. If I have faith to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. This verse always seemed to speak about hope and intention, a way to move forward, and a way to consider where ‘we’ are going. In that respect it resonates back to the panel the night of the opening, speaking of Short Hills but also the Two Row Wampum. One of the speakers, Elizabeth Chitty, talked of Beam’s work as a potential guide for how to move forward, and I very much like that idea, and would suggest you keep that in mind when you visit the works.

Carl Beam: Us and Everything is on display in the Joy Williams Lobby, at the Performing Arts Centre, in downtown St. Catharines for nearly the entirety of 2019. All images (except the header, which is courtesy the artist’s estate) are courtesy of Justus Duntsch, the co curator of this exhibition, and whom has generously shared these images from his collection. 

About Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters, BlackFlash, ArtSeen, ti<, Long Exposure and Magenta. Past curatorial projects include REGION (Contemporary Saskatchewan Painting) and Personal Geographies (an overview of The Photographers Gallery collection). Gazzola was Editorial Chair of BlackFlash Magazine (3 years), and was the visual arts critic for Planet S Magazine. He held the latter role for more than a decade, publishing reviews about Saskatoon visual arts and the larger community twice monthly. He's a frequent contributor to The SoundSTC and is the facilitator of the 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversations, through Rodman Hall Art Centre.
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