Contents | March 2001

In This Issue (Contributors)

More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.

Battleground of the Eye - Page 4
1 | 2 | 3 | 4

n the 1940s, before he entered his squiggly, Zen-inspired, drip-painted white-writing phase, Mark Tobey was paying close attention to the art of the Northwest-coast Indians, as in his Drums, Indians and The Word (1944). Since John Webber first sketched at Nootka, Indians had often been in the foreground of Northwest landscapes, as the obligatory genii loci of the region, but their art had made only incidental appearances, in the form of carved and painted canoes, house posts, totem poles, and embroidered hats. The rediscovery of primitive art was part of the core curriculum of twentieth-century Modernism, with Braque and Picasso rivaling each other in their extensive collections of Amerindian and Pacific-island trophies. Borrowing from the stylized and abstract vision of the world as represented in tribal art became a Modernist mannerism, and on the Northwest coast the white artist had immediate access to an extraordinary body of native work. The art of the Kwakiutl, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit Indians was as vital, strange, and complex as any in the world. On bentwood boxes, muslin wall hangings, housefronts, masks, and domestic equipment the Indians left their own, often highly enigmatic, landscapes of the Pacific Northwest—a great treasury of techniques and images to which twentieth-century white artists began freely to help themselves.

Tobey—like Morris Graves, who took on Oregon—accepted a commission to paint Washington for a United States series that was funded from 1946 to 1949 by the Container Corporation of America. Graves's Oregon is a delicate, feathery, Japanese-looking study of northwestern evergreens. Tobey's Washington is an intensely busy Indian-inspired pictographic puzzle, like the totemic heraldry on a Kwakiutl painted chest. It's a labyrinth of interlocking rectangles, each one packed with images and symbols, on a ground as luminously gray as a Seattle sky. Inside the rectangles are dozens of ovoids or "eye shapes"—the basic building blocks of Northwest-coast Native American design. As with a Kwakiutl chest, the painting demands to be "read" by the viewer, and, as with the chest, some of its meanings readily disclose themselves whereas others appear to be deeply secretive and private. One sees immediately the salmon, the Pike Place Market scene, the seascape with a sailboat, the tribal masks, but the larger code is not so easily cracked. On one level the painting resolves into a game of Can You Spot (... the killer whale? canoes? logs? mountains? the Indian bird-rattle? Skagit Valley tulips? the artist in his studio? the oyster? clams?). On another it's a palimpsest—writing-on-writing, some legible and strongly foregrounded, some faint and obscure, with the whole composition giving the impression of infinitely recessive depth. More than any other painting in the Container Corporation series, Washington succeeds in condensing an entire American state—its nature, industry, and recreations—into a square of paperboard; and it does so by summoning the aid of the state's aboriginal inhabitants, whose art informs the whole conception of the piece.

It was Tobey who nagged at Emily Carr, a British Columbian painter, to get the Indian-folklore material out of her pictures. After training in Paris, where she fell for the work of Derain and the Fauvists, and after a long spell in an English mental hospital, where she filled an aviary with British songbirds, hoping to import them to Vancouver Island, Carr traveled through coastal British Columbia, painting Indian canoes, house posts, and totem poles in the forest. In 1930, when he was forty and she was fifty-nine, Tobey appointed himself Carr's mentor and critic, advising her to drop the Indian subjects and follow his lead into greater abstraction. The famously spiky Carr was not a natural follower. "Clever but his work has no soul," she remarked of Tobey in her journal (published posthumously as Hundreds and Thousands [1966]).

Though Tobey's opinion of her work rankled, it evidently made its mark, because the canoes and totem poles began to disappear from Carr's canvases, allowing the turbulent shapes of the forest itself to emerge as her great subject. Before, she had concentrated on re-creating, in two dimensions, the swooping curves and expressive distortions of carved figures like Raven and Thunderbird. After about 1930 the foliage of the fir forest, and its undergrowth of bracken, blackberry, and salal, became for her a kind of painted sculpture in its own right. Every leaf and twig looks chiseled, in Indian house-post style, and Carr's forest is thick with fortuitous visual echoes of the mythological creatures who dominated her earlier paintings—especially Dzonogwa, the female Kwakiutl child-stealer; Raven; and Eagle. This is animistic nature—a realm of gross and copious fecundity, where powerful half-seen beings live in the shadows.

In her journal Carr took a dim view of people who "stay outside [the forest] and talk about its beauty."
Nobody goes there. Why? Few have anything to go for. The loneliness repels them, the density, the unsafe hidden footing, the dank smells, the great quiet, the mystery, the general mix-up (tangle, growth, what may be hidden there), the insect life. They are repelled by the awful solemnity of the age-old trees, with the wisdom of all their years of growth looking down upon you, making you feel perfectly infinitesimal—their overpowering weight, their groanings and creekings [sic], mutterings and sighings—the rot and decay of the old ones—the toadstools and slugs ...

If this passage seems to be at least as much about the dank and smelly mystery of sex as about trees, so do Carr's paintings—though the explicit sexuality of her forest is far from being its only signification. In August of 1937 she wrote of an unfinished picture of the woods, "It all depends on the sweep and swirl and I have not got it yet." In her best paintings the forest is literally a whirlpool of meanings, in a state of constant dissolution and recombination. Sex is to be found there, but so are worship, peaceful refuge, fear, revulsion, beauty, power, pathos. It's a complex and accommodating place, which answers equally to, say, George Vancouver's desolation and the Romantic sense of wonder. It seems as close as any white artist or writer has ever come to the Indian version of the Northwest forest as it appears in the native stories collected by Franz Boas and other early anthropologists.

he Pacific Northwest is now entangled in a rancorous quarrel about landscape: "Wise Use" has become a sly euphemism for chain-saw liberation; farmers rally to protest the reintroduction of wolves into the mountains; salmon-first conservationists plan on dynamiting the hydroelectric dams about which Woody Guthrie used to sing.

Here's a contemporary Pacific Northwest landscape: On the Olympic Peninsula the carcass of a northern spotted owl was found nailed to a fence post. The bird had been expertly shot with a high-powered small-caliber rifle. Beside it was pinned a typewritten note, or caption: "If you think your parks and wildernesses don't have enough of these suckers, plant this one." The anonymous artist left behind two beer cans, a Band-Aid, and a spent match.

This stretch of land has been so fought over, painted and repainted, laden with partisan and contradictory meanings, that it tends to invite the response of a tired postmodern shrug. A recent New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress shows a vacationing couple standing beside their RV atop a dizzy precipice, from which they're looking down at the usual natural amenities of the Pacific Northwest—fir trees, mountains, waterfalls, winding trails. The man, in baggy tartan shorts and wraparound sunglasses, is saying to the woman, "So this is the famous environment everyone's so hyped up about?"

It's "the famous environment" that the Portland artist Michael Brophy depicts with sardonic cool in People's View. At the turn of the twenty-first century Brophy has achieved the ambition of every nineteenth-century Romantic painter: he has voided the land of its people. Not even a solitary Indian disturbs his denuded Northwest, with its lonely geology, water, and dark-green vegetation—though field lines and bridges survive, and the hills have been largely shorn of their timber. Nature (or what little is now left of nature) has become a prettily lit stage set, from which the audience has been divorced by a proscenium arch. In the immediate foreground of the picture the spectators are assembled, their backs to the painter—a dense crowd of urban types, in Birkenstocks and earth-toned leisurewear from Eddie Bauer. We're in there too, dutifully gazing at this empty spectacle, this picture of a picture, which is what the Pacific Northwest has become. We're in exactly the same position as the people who look at the sea in Robert Frost's poem:
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

1 | 2 | 3 | 4

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2001; Battleground of the Eye - 01.03; Volume 287, No. 3; page 40-52.