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Carl Beam. PHOTO: ANN BEAM
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"The North American Iceberg"
Carl Beam, "The North American Iceberg," acrylic, photo-serigraph and graphite on Plexiglas, 1985. PHOTO: NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA. PHOTO©NGC.
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Carl Beam, "Untitled," natural mineral pigment on unglazed earthenware, 1981, 6" X 5". PHOTO: CANADIAN MUSEUM OF CIVILIZATION COLLECTION, GATINEAU, QUEBEC, III-G-1279. PHOTO STEVEN DARBY © CANADIAN MUSEUM OF CIVILIZATION
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Carl Beam, "Columbus Chronicles," photo-emulsion, acrylic, graphite on canvas, 1992. PHOTO: NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA. PHOTO©NGC.
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Carl Beam. PHOTO: ANN BEAM
CARL BEAM: RE-VISIONING HISTORY
Surveying the work of an artist who broke down the boundaries between contemporary and Aboriginal art.
BY: Marlene Milne
In 1977, Carl Beam made a decision. After attending the Kootenay School of Art in British Columbia, and finishing a Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Victoria, his Masters thesis proposal to the University of Alberta — on the southwest American artist, Fritz Scholder — had been rejected. At a turning point in his career, he travelled to New Mexico to experience first-hand the area’s indigenous imagery and contemporary influences, which were helping Scholder transcend categorization and walk the gap between what were then two distinct genres, “Aboriginal” and “Contemporary” art. After that, Beam’s journey headed in a different direction, and his work evolved — he began inventing and integrating images and texts to create new vocabulary, and inviting viewers to identify with, and reflect on history, culture, heritage, and the natural world.
Beam’s world-view began to take shape early. The first son of Barbara Migwans of West Bay Reserve (M’Chigeeng) on Manitoulin Island and an American soldier, Edward Cooper, who later died in World War II, Carl was raised mostly by his Anishinaabe grandparents. As elders, they recognized his gifts, giving him a special name, Aakideh, associated with bravery. But it was his stepfather’s name that Beam assumed as his artistic journey began. His work had caught the attention of private and public galleries, and he landed shows in Victoria, Toronto, Sault Ste. Marie, Brantford, and Albuquerque.
After marriage to Toronto-based artist Ann Weatherby, and a move in 1980 to New Mexico with their daughter, Anong, he was attracted to the traditional technique of hand-building ceramics, firing, glazing, and pigmenting, and he and Ann both began experimenting with the form. Rather than adorning his ceramics with local or traditional designs, he incorporated his own personal imagery — stylized shamanic figures that seemed to rise from deep in the vessels.
A significant early work, The Elders (1978), commissioned by the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, has been posted near the entrance to the exhibitionCarl Beam (organized by the National Gallery of Canada and traveling this year to Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology and the Winnipeg Art Gallery). In this work, Beam has painted using photographs for reference. Later, he would incorporate photographic work into collage, and reinterpret historic imagery in different contexts and media. But here, sacred colors begin to meld with those of the colour-key of photo-lithography, heralding Beam’s fusion of the traditional, the historical, and the technical. The vista in The Eldersappears clearly, but later Beam’s landscape references became more polluted, more personal, and more political. The flying eagle, both a messenger and an endangered species, and the inserted eagle feather (symbolizing respect), are what Carl Beam curator Greg Hill calls “codes”, whose meanings shift by juxtaposition.
The Beam family traveled a lot, returning frequently to West Bay and its environs. Beam’s approach to his own work was significantly different from the prevailing aesthetic at the time among indigenous artists in both the U.S. and Canada, which emphasized marketing trends in “revival ware” in ceramics, and allegiance to the Woodland school. Beam continued to question the linear thinking of anthropological, ethnological, and art-historical categorization of indigenous peoples, transcending boundaries.
He found a common voice in Elizabeth McLuhan, at the time curator of collections at the Thunder Bay National Exhibition Centre and Centre for Indian Art, who curated his exhibition there, Altered Egos (1984). McLuhan’s eloquent, insightful, and prescient curatorial essay turned the heads of many people, who began to understand Beam’s vision.
The gallery commissioned a piece, Exorcism, for the opening. Real barbed wire is embedded in the centre of the canvas, and imagery includes an Egyptian figure, balancing serenely and watching over a ghostly photo-transfer of three mourners. There are handprints, figures holding up their hands, a sort of target, and birds on a wire. During the show’s opening, people stepped out of the crowd of viewers and shot arrows into Exorcism, and both the curator and the artist plunged hatchets into it.
“My work is not made for Indian people but for thinking people,” Beam is quoted as saying. “In the global and evolutionary scheme, the difference between humans is negligible.” Beam’s work is mutable enough that it’s open to many different levels of perception, which evolve and change with the advance of time and common knowledge. But as open-ended as Exorcism appears, its form has been clearly considered by the artist. It’s on plywood, built to withstand arrows and hatchets, it has unity, rhythm, and continuity, and it contains the four basic Beam constructs — self-representation, conflation, measurement, and text.
In an essay on Beam’s work on Plexiglas The North American Iceberg (1985), artist and curator Gerald McMaster suggests that the three self-portraits in it merge with the viewer to form a fourth wall. Three vintage figures fromExorcism are juxtaposed with images of the Anwar Sadat assassination, Edweard Muybridge freeze-frames, sepia images of Aboriginal women in traditional dress, and a portrait of Geronimo. They may or may not refer to a photography “shoot” or the way huge forces evolve slowly but inexorably, like icebergs. Shortly after, Beam became interested in marking the historical and cultural significance of the Christopher Columbus quincentennial in 1992, bringing a fresh eye to the event, and working on it off and on from 1988 to 1992. Columbus Chronicles(1992), with Hiroshima obliterated above an iconographic Columbus portrait, adjacent to “symbols of patterned behaviour” like bees and traffic lights, lend the work a suitably ironic tone.
In the early 1990s, Beam and his family started to construct a sturdy home and studio in West Bay from adobe bricks they fashioned out of earth from his grandfather’s land. Settled, he produced a growing body of work, including New World Koan (1996 - 97), Work (1998), Summa (2002) and, finally the multi-stage piece The Whale of our Being (2001).
Carl Beam’s legacy can be seen in the work of Jane Ash Poitras, Robert Houle, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, Linus Woods, K.C. Adams and others. It can also be found in the idea that Aboriginal art and contemporary art are finally no longer perceived as mutually exclusive. Beam was the first Aboriginal artist whose work was added to the permanent contemporary collection of the National Gallery of Canada (they bought The North American Iceberg in 1986). Though it was just 25 years ago, it broke down a barrier that artists have been faithfully crossing since. When he died in 2005, Beam left behind a world of creative interpretation that continues to engage the intellects of artists, curators, and viewers.
Carl Beam is on at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver through May 29, 2011, and at the Winnipeg Art Gallery July 2 to September 11, 2011.