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HUMANITIES 211 Steven C. Brown. Native Visions: Evolution in Northwest Coast Art from the Eighteenth through the Twentieth Century The Seattle Art Museum in association with Douglas and McIntyre. x, 220. $45.00 In Native Visions: Evolution in Northwest Coast Artfrom the Eighteenth through the Twentieth Century Steven Brown has used a major exhibition of Northwest Coast art and its catalogue to present a lucid history of Northwest Coast style. The key to this history lies in the distinctive stylistic features of three broad sets of objects: those recovered from archaeological sites, those collected by eighteenth century European explorers, and the nineteenth century works largely featured in Bill Holm's 1965 publication, Northwest Coast Indian Art, An Analysis of Form. The exhibition, Native Visions: Northwest Coast Art, Eighteenth Century to the Present, brings together works from several private collections. Beautifully photographed, these objects serve as specific illustrations and points of reference for Brown's thesis. Arguing that the distinctive features ofthe general Northwest Coast graphic and sculptural style have changed in regular ways over the centuries , and neatly avoiding the binary traps of 'traditional' and 'anomalous,' and 'past' and 'present,' that have persistently plagued discussions of the history of aboriginal art, Brown gives even-handed consideration to works attributed to several eras from the late eighteenth century to the late twentieth century. Both the exhlbit and book titles refer to the eighteenth century, but three archaeological works have been assigned dates ranging from one to three thousand years ago~ and Brown makes a case for attributing to the seventeenth or even sixteenth centuries certain works collected much later. The formline system identified in Bill Holm's Northwest Coast Art, An Analysis of Form is pivotal to Brown's thesis. To reduce a very complex, technical argument to bare essentials, Brown identifies a progression from the broad formlines and a preponderance of positive over negative space in the design of objects made in eighteenth century and before, to the narrower but still dominant formlines, increase in the proportion of negative to positive space, and greater elaboration of secondary elements in the work of nineteenth-century artists. Exploring the dynamiC relationship of the conservative nature of the formline system, the constraints on change presented by its requirements for containment and balance, and the creative energy of its practitioners, Brown analyses the styles that have distinguished the northern, centraL and southern regions over time. Basketry and weaving do not go unmentioned, and are unequivocally ac-' cepted as 'art,' but the core argument addresses graphic and sculptural works, and, more particularly, that stream of northern Northwest Coast artistic expression in which graphic design a'nd sculpture meet. Although the elernents of design and their changing relationship over time are central 212 LETTERS IN CANADA 1998 to the argument throughout the book, Brown also places the objects in the dynamic social contexts in which the artists worked. In considering the tradition-affirming but still exploratory and often innovative work of late twentieth-century artists, Brown makes the pOint that experimentation and innovation have always been qualities of Northwest Coast design, and that through the generations 'a small number of innovators initiated new ideas that inspired their peers, who followed along in the new directions inspired by the expressions of the most creative individuals.' The connoisseurs' collections that form the substance of the exhibit and the visual backbone of the book both illuminate Brown's argument and confine its exposition. For the predictive power of the analysis to be secure, each component must be grounded in the linkage of the reference objects to a specific period. For the very early works and those produced by late nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists whose biographies are known, the external documentation is clear. The challenge of recognizing the periods of origin of much of the rest of Northwest Coast art, collected largely between 1880 and 1930 but possibly reflecting the work of many generations , is itself a raison d'etre for the book. Brown has employed two methods for mitigating this problem, which might productively have been more consistently applied. Inproposing a much earlier date ofmanufacture for two objects collected in the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries, respectively...


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pp. 211-212
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