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Guud without glans Robert Davidson: a line that bends but does not break
When: November 26 to April 16
Where: Vancouver Art Gallery
Tickets and information: vanartgallery.bc.ca
robert davidsonthe first solo exhibition of Vancouver Art Gallery In 1993, a great retrospective of his career was held that set a wide and varied table with more than 200 carvings, bronze sculptures, jewelry, painted deerskin drums, engravings, and paintings.
Three decades later, the world-renowned Haida/Tlingit artist returns to the VAG with another solo exhibition. But this time, the visual feast focuses on davidsonthe graphic work of and his mastery of Haida form line.
Guud without glans Robert Davidson: a line that bends but does not break from November 26 to April 16, includes 137 prints, drawings and paintings produced from the late 1960s to the present. Ninety-five of those pieces belong to the permanent collection of VAG.
“It is extremely pleasant to be around them. That is more than a superficial experience. It’s because of how absolutely meticulous he is in the work he does. How thoughtful he is. How deeply invested he is in those traditions that it’s just a really powerful viewing experience and I think anyone can go in and see that. I think that’s why it’s as popular as it is,” said Richard Hill, art historian and Smith Jarislowsky Senior Curator of Canadian Art at the VAG.
“It really gives me an idea of how strong the Haida visual tradition is, but it really takes it to a place you won’t have seen anywhere else.”
The Audain Prize winner is a leading figure in North West Coast art. Davidson’s work is in public institutions such as the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Canadian Museum of History in Hull, Quebec, and the Museum of the Southwest in Los Angeles. Davidson has been part of more than 20 group shows at the VAG since 1967.
“I’m excited to have my work in a public space because I feel like a lot of my work is sold privately, so not a lot of my new material gets shown in a public space,” said Davidson, 76, recently from his White Rock studio. .
While most of the pieces in VAG’s new exhibit come from the institution’s own collection, there was still a need for VAG staff to look further afield for more of Davidson’s work, something Mandy Ginson, assistant curator of collections at VAG, he says it was an interesting and welcome task.
“It is so internationally known that the works are scattered everywhere. So the process of finding the paintings has helped me understand how respected he is. How well known it is. How important it is,” Ginson said.
Along with engravings and paintings, the VAG show includes many preparatory and foundational sketches and drawings. These visual schematics and problem-solving images pull back the curtain on the development of Davidson’s iconic visual language.
“Something that caught my eye that we can capture in this exhibition, a bit, is a bit of Robert’s work process in graphic works,” Hill said.
“One of the things that he showed us when we were there (in his studio) was his sketchbooks, and it was a light moment for me to see the kind of generative process that he does to create those compositions because the line is very, very fluid. and very loose, and as it builds, it gives mass to these forms”.
“There is no magic in what I do. It’s a learning curve for me too,” Davidson said when asked about the sketches and drawings. “It’s good to show the process.”
A traveling repository of rich Haida culture, Davidson has spent more than five decades learning and speaking the Haida visual language to create “a vocabulary.”
“The way he talks about it is really compelling. He describes it as a visual language,” Hill said. “There was this visual language that he had to learn, and he has this incredible literacy in this visual language to the point where he can make poetry out of it. That’s how I think of that work as a kind of poetry within the Haida visual language.”
“For me it’s like a master class,” Hill added. “It’s a visual feast.”
Davidson’s upbringing began as a boy at the feet of his ancestors.
“I didn’t realize that I was learning. I was curious,” said Davidson, whose great-great-grandfather is the iconic Haida artist, Charles Edenshaw. “Now that information is what we are using. I attribute the generation of my grandparents as the last link to ancestral knowledge. Because my parents’ generation was the generation that was ripped from the link.”
Despite being surrounded by exceptional carvers in his youth, including his father Claude Davidson and grandfather, Robert Davidson Sr., colonialism sadly crushed much of cultural history, leaving Masset-raised Davidson with memories of grandparents who they had to perform ceremonies with masks made of cardboard instead of carved wood. That break in the cultural timeline led Davidson to educate himself.
And now, as a leading figure in the revival of Haida art and culture, to educate others.
“I am always surprised when I hear that. I never thought that what I’m creating would be studied,” Davidson said. “Now where I am is I’m putting all that information together and that’s what rules my life.”
Always learning, Davidson is himself the kind of living, breathing resource material that connoisseurs appreciate and younger artists admire.
“I’ve always appreciated how he talks about expanding his own understanding of art,” said Karen Duffek, curator of Contemporary Visual Arts and the Pacific Northwest at the UBC Museum of Anthropology.
“He focuses on expanding his own understanding and I think he has been incredibly influential as a teacher and mentor. And just the fact that his art is there, you can see the influence that he has had on other contemporary Haida artists, and even beyond Haida artists, other coastal artists. He has put a lot of emphasis on really looking deeply at art and thinking about it.”
That thoughtful approach is on full display in the stunning new book Echoes of the Supernatural: The Graphic Art of Robert Davidson by Gary Wyatt and Davidson.
“Actually, it was brainstormed by Gary Wyatt of Spirit Wrestler Gallery. He pitched me the idea and I was very excited because I felt it was time to put together most of the graphics, sketches, mostly etchings and some of the original paintings. In fact, he did all the footwork and I fact-checked a lot of the stories that complemented the images,” Davidson said of the book, which is a brilliant companion to the VAG program.
“I really enjoyed that. It gives me great joy when there is an ear. An ear that is willing to listen to some of the stories. Also, I feel like there’s always a new angle when someone asks a question about a piece. I never think about it until the question is asked and very often it’s another kind of level of the image.”
Echoes of the Supernatural is packed with images of work spanning half a century. What does Davidson think when he sees the extensive conversation that is his visual language collected in this heavy and wondrous tome?
“Time for a day off,” he says with a smile.