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Exhibition Brings Together Masterpieces by Carl Beam, Who has Been a Vital Force in Contemporary Art in Canada
Carl Beam, The North American Iceberg, 1985. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC.
OTTAWA, ON.- Carl Beam was a vital force in contemporary art in Canada. At the vanguard of a new and assertive First Nations art discourse, his art builds intellectual and philosophical bridges between cultures. His powerful works explore the space between Indigenous and other cultural views of our collective “place” within the universe/cosmos. Personal, even self-referential, his work also shows his awareness of communal and global concerns. Until January 16, 2011, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) presents Carl Beam, an exhibition bringing together fifty of the most outstanding works of this contemporary Canadian artist of Anishinaabe descent who passed away in 2005, including five pieces acquired this year by the Gallery.

Covering his complete career from the late 70s to 2004, the exhibition sheds light on his investigations into the metaphysical aspects of Western and Indigenous cultures, while powerfully illustrating the wide-ranging physicality of his work, from his large-scale paintings, to his ceramics, constructions and video. Beam works in an aesthetic more akin to the expressive layering of Rauschenberg than the traditional forms of Anishinabek “Woodland School” painters, confounding expectations as he masterfully combines a diverse iconography of images to express his profound musings on contemporary art and our contemporary (post?)-colonial and post-modern condition.

‘’Carl Beam’s work holds a special place within the art history of Canada and within the collection of the National Gallery," said NGC Director Marc Mayer. ‘’Beam was a powerful voice in contemporary art in Canada, a key Anishinaabe artist who drew upon all the cultural resources at his disposal to make an unforgettable body of work with universal implication."

Carl Beam: The Poetics of Being
Organized by Greg A. Hill, Audain Curator of Indigenous Art and Head of the Department, the exhibition is organized around five main themes: Beginning with his early work ─ including the masterpiece The North American Iceberg, purchased by the Gallery in 1986 and the first contemporary work by a First Nations artist to be included in its collection ─ The Columbus Project, an immense body of work which challenges historically dominant assumptions and re-examines the meaning of Columbus' arrival in North America and its long-term repercussions for the indigenous peoples of the Americas; Plant Communication, Margins: Food / Shelter and The Whale of Our Being touch on Beam’s study of the relationship between humans and their environment; and Crossroads, a meditation on fame and celebrity that was the last series of pieces the artist worked on. Also included are a selection of Beam’s ceramics that further extend his thematic concerns to this medium and demonstrate the artist’s interest and study of ancient Anasazi (200 – 1300) and Mimbres (1000 – 1150) pottery from the U.S. Southwest through to his later works that incorporate Japanese firing and glazing techniques, created from the clay and pigments of Manitoulin Island.

In his introduction to the catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, curator Greg A. Hill explains that "Beam is noted for his manner of linking many broad cultural, historical and political references to larger world issues. Beam employed the methodology of the koan – a form of writing that has its origins in Zen Buddhism and which is composed of words with no apparent logical connection – to provoke contemplation leading to the realization that there are multiple truths and realities. Yet, he did not aim to instruct; rather, he provided a multitude of visual and textual pointers to construct multiple meanings."

Starting in the 1970s, Carl Beam’s discourse challenged the prevailing marginalization of contemporary Aboriginal art. Beam’s philosophical approach to contemporary art in the three decades that followed has contributed much in terms of a critique on the place of reason and instrumentality in the colonial expansion of Western society. His art engages his Anishinaabek traditions through its recognition of the important role of dreams, the place of spirit helpers, and the lessons of his Aboriginal ancestry. At the same time, it builds intellectual bridges between the philosophies of Western and Anishinaabek traditions. Beam contrasts a society transfixed by the lure of a fleeting technological utopia with the unyielding permanence of the natural world. He creates a temporal space measured in concepts of time based on natural forces, as opposed to the linear systems of time measurement that regulate Western civilization.

National Gallery of Canada | Carl Beam | Greg A. Hill |


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