Robert Davidson is probably the best known living Haida artist, following in the footsteps of the late Bill Reid, who was both his teacher and his friend. Like Reid, who died in 1998, Davidson has mined the traditional iconography of his people, creating stunning images that have played an emblematic role in the revival of Haida culture.
More so than Reid, however, Davidson has moved toward pure abstraction. Some of this more recent work is being presented alongside the old in his current exhibition Robert Davidson: The Abstract Edge, at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection until May 14. With these works is included a small but satisfying selection of historic wooden boxes and feast dishes, a canoe paddle and some poles which allow us to see that Haida art has always been about the liveliness of the line.
It has evidently always, too, been about a fascination with abstraction, which Haida artists have explored to varying degrees throughout the centuries -- a tradition of non-representation running parallel to the better-understood narrative art that recounts clan history and genealogy. What were they up to?
Karen Duffek, a curator at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver and the organizer of this show, says there are several theories about Haida abstraction. One: that Haida artists were simply engaged in aesthetic experimentation for its own sake. Abstraction, as Davidson has put it, challenged the mind "to go beyond what we can recognize."
Two: that by using abstraction as adornment, the Haida were able to create highly decorative objects that were non-narrative, speaking of no particular clan, and were thus more readily exchangeable as commodities between nations. (The classic 20th-century modernist claims for abstraction as a universal language come to mind here.) This view, she says, allows us to see that the history of Haida art as trade goods began before contact with white explorers. Works of contemporary art that are painted on canvas, like Davidson's spectacular Killer Whale (owned, incidentally, by Elvis Costello and Diana Krall), can be understood as part of a long tradition of objects made for exchange that predates the non-ceremonial carved masks and other made-for-the-market commodities of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Many of the more recent works in this show, like the rectilinear carved wall panel Green (2002), seem to delve into the mystery of line, as if Davidson were trying to travel to the source of his tradition's visual vitality through close examination. At the same time, the piece makes eloquent reference to West Coast modernism. The tension between aboriginal and European vernaculars feels vibrant, easy and masterful.
In other works, however, like his two untitled paintings in the exhibition from 1999 and 1997, the energy seems to drain away through a kind of oversimplification, as if the artist were adrift between the languages of Haida art and hard-edge abstraction of European and American tradition. Davidson sometimes seem to set himself a compositional dare, stripping away detail as if to see how far he can go before things fall apart. I found myself drawn to the denser, earlier work.
Davidson's circular Eagle Looking at Eagle (1990), for example, is the show's standout piece. Painted on a deerskin drum cover, it reveals the artist operating at maximum force and embodies many attributes associated with the finest Haida art.
First, the iconography exemplifies the principle of transformation, with the mirrored images morphing into one another in a seamless way. (The piece reminds us why the French Surrealists were so dazzled by the art of the Northwest coast.) The composition is a mirror reflection, but not exactly. Careful looking reveals a host of discrepancies between the upper and lower hemispheres, and the searching out of these becomes a kind of meditative act. Davidson's drum is a West Coast mandala, leading the eye on an infinite dance.
Second, the composition has a kind of tight-fitted coherence and integrity with tremendous impact. Nothing feels extraneous or lazy, and everything fits in a kind of inevitable way, reflecting, perhaps, Davidson's view of creation -- a complexity that he invites us to honour and understand.
Third, the painting plays a game of chicken with equilibrium. The composition feels superbly balanced, yet right at the core the two ovoids are slightly torqued, as if a whirlpool were forming at the centre. The result is a sense of visual dynamism in the design that makes it feel enlivened from within.
The pre-eminent quality of Davidson's art, though, is his sense of the line, which whips around here like a downed electrical wire, charging the space around it. The Haida have the expression: "The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife," and you think about that when you look at Davidson's line, which functions as an edge between realms, between the dense, content-filled spaces loaded up with visual data, and the solid blocks of red or of black that serve as the compositional foil.
Speaking about this, Davidson has said: "What's inside [the line]is the past -- the knowledge and experience -- and what's outside is yet to be experienced." Eagle looking at Eagle shows us how fine that edge can be.
Robert Davidson: The Abstract Edge continues at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., until May 14. The show then travels to the McCord Museum in Montreal (May 27 to Oct. 15) and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (Feb. 2 to May 6, 2007).