One meaning of the term “Anishinaabe” is “the good people.” It informs the style that some Anishinaabe artists, such as Norval Morrisseau, have been identified with—the Woodland School—which is characterized by its stylized imagery, often of animals and people, with heavy black outlines and flat fields of colour.
Carl Beam (1943–2005) was an Anishinaabe artist who departed from the Woodland School style and who did good work by considering the world through a more optic lens. His artistic practice covered everything from performance to pottery to painting to house-building and bridged the language of traditional native culture with the most contemporary of visual bits and bytes. Beam’s art addressed questions of a philosophical nature with an accessible visual and written collage and painting technique. For his incredible breadth and range of production, and for his ability to seize on contemporary motifs while blending them with the traditions of his people, Carl is one of the best known artists—if not the best known artist—of his generation.
The 1989 video work Burying the Ruler, Beam’s comment on the disappeared Taino tribe in the Dominican Republic, later evolved into a triptych and other projects that dealt with the interface between two extremely different world views—western and indigenous Amerindian. A preoccupation with this interface also wove through Beam’s ambitious Columbus Project, whose phases were presented in the late 1980s and early 1990s at Peterborough’s Artspace. And these concerns also grew into a major project, The Columbus Boat, which debuted at Toronto’s Power Plant in 1992 to much acclaim. (Full disclosure: Canadian Art editor Richard Rhodes curated this latter exhibition during his term at the Power Plant.)
What stands out in seeing the current, narrow sampling of 50 of Beam’s works at the National Gallery is the way he co-opts the aesthetics of the white man to transform, interpret and build greater meaning, marrying these aesthetics with Amerindian culture to create an art about a relativity of worldviews. The notational effects written and inscribed into multi-media paintings like 1985’s North American Iceberg—the first contemporary artwork by a First Nations artist to be purchased by the National Gallery (that purchase happened in 1986)—carries cadences of Robert Rauschenberg’s image grafting, but Beam is naturally closer to the theatre of nature. Big Dissolve, with its great whale image seemingly whitewashed over with seas of paint, presents fragments and notes as if Beam were an observer of the devolution of western culture, building his ongoing diary of devolution (with apologies to Charles Darwin). In 2001′s Big Dissolve we read, “the big dissolve; the little pieces and the little pixels all worked in a weird harmony, leaving only a memory of an incomplete poetry.” Numerical sequences, colour spots: it all reads like a great code, the artist’s own, of a language that supersedes both western and Amerindian.
With 2002’s Summa, whose title partly references Thomas Aquinas’ 13th-century Summa Theologica, Beam presents a collage of images—Joseph Beuys, John Lennon at his piano, the artist himself on a beach, Lakota chief Sitting Bull and the sacred figure of White Buffalo Calf Woman. A satellite-dish image suggests a reaching outwards, some greater cosmic search for a greater meaning. With these last works, Beam seemed to be looking beyond technological utopias, seeing with a visionary spirit that the interfaces Marshall McLuhan diagnosed are merely a passing phenomenon in an incredible humanitarian legacy of communication and survival. Beam’s broad, visual-narrative scope captures all this with a mind as sharp and uncompromising as a stone arrowhead.