Driver by Carl Beam (Winnipeg Art Gallery)
Carl Beam was given the name Ahkideh, which means "brave one" in the Ojibwe language, and his bold, big, highly personal work challenged the assumptions that had relegated First Nations art to the ethnographic ghetto. In 1986, Carl Beam became the first indigenous artist to have work acquired by the National Gallery of Canada for its contemporary art collection.
This comprehensive touring retrospective, organized by the National Gallery and now on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, includes 49 works from Beam's three-decade career, from small ceramic pieces to massive multimedia paintings. (Time Warp, a 1984 painting done on unstretched linen, is nearly 13 metres long, and its belated installation next week will be a 20-person, all-hands-on-deck job.)
Beam, who died in 2005, grounded his art in Anishinaabek visions but merged them with a restless, roving interest in science, history, global events and pop culture. His style drew on Pop Art collage and muscular, messy '80s neo-Expressionism, often combining overlapping, interconnected photo-transfer images with dripping paint, stencilled words and scrawled handwritten notes.
Beam had a magpie collection of recurring symbols and signs -- Renaissance crucifixions, ravens, bees, electrical meters, mathematical graphs and archival photographs, along with images of himself, bearded and barrel-chested, and odd little handwritten "notes to self." Stop-motion photos of a running elk, taken by photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, were an obsession. ("Elks again?" Beam writes on one of his paintings.)
Born to an Ojibwe mother of the M'Chigeeng First Nation and an American father, a soldier who died in a POW camp in World War II, Beam attended a residential school in Ontario in the 1950s. He studied at the Kootenay School of Art and the University of Victoria, and lived and worked in the United States and Canada. Beam incorporated this border-crossing autobiography into his work but always expanded it into something bigger.
The Columbus Project is a fierce cross-cultural critique of Columbus's "discovery" of North America. The Whale of our Being combines moral and ecological concerns with references to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Crossroads examines our current conflation of celebrity culture and mass media infotainment, in which a picture of Osama bin Laden has the same weight as an image of Britney Spears.
This retrospective demonstrates the enormous range of Beam's art. But it also shows how everything -- from traditional farming practices to modern medical ethics, from 15th-century Christianity to quantum theory, from Geronimo to Johnny Cash -- was merged into his own singular, stubbornly held artistic vision.