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A Beam of intense light

Touring exhibition at WAG highlights 'deeply personal, often messy' work of contemporary aboriginal artist

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In 1986, Carl Beam made Canadian art history.

A huge, multi-layered, spattered mixed-media work by the artist who came from Ontario's Manitoulin Island -- son of an Ojibwe mother and a non-aboriginal father -- was bought by the National Gallery of Canada.

It was purchased not as an ethnographic object for the aboriginal collection, but simply as an outstanding work of contemporary art.

It was a breakthrough by a boundary-shattering figure who died in 2005 of diabetes-related causes at the age of 62.

The iconic 1985 work, The North American Iceberg, painted on Plexiglas and incorporating historical photos, documents and text, is one of 48 on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in a major retrospective titled Carl Beam, mounted by the National Gallery last year.

The touring show, curated by the aboriginal Greg Hill, opened this week and is on until Sept. 11.

Beam, who was largely raised by his Ojibwe grandparents, was sent to a residential school at the age of 10. His body of work, which won him the Governor General's Award in 2005, is highly political, addressing the legacy of colonization and the ghostly traces of indigenous history and culture.

It's deeply personal, often messy, and more similar to the collaged work of American Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg than to the familiar Woodland style of art with its peaceful loons and wolves.

"It's not this quaint artifact of a lost time," says Mary Reid, WAG curator of contemporary art and photography. "This work was made here, now, about today's reality, and it's made by a contemporary First Nations person. You can feel the rawness and the energy coming from it."

The North American Iceberg has been called the "Trojan Horse" for contemporary aboriginal art -- the first work to enter the fortress. Beam created it to protest a 1984 show at the Art Gallery of Ontario called The European Iceberg. He was enraged at the exclusion of First Nations artists from major galleries.

It's one of three key, very large-scaled works in the show. Another is Exorcism (1984), a viscerally powerful mixed-media piece with a barbed-wire fence strung across it, actual arrows shot into it, and hatchets buried in it.

The third massive work, also from 1984, is a wall-filling mural called Time Warp. It arrived in fragile condition and will not be installed until about July 12, Reid says, describing it as "a knockout."

Beam used recurring imagery throughout his career. In many works there are ravens, elk, shaman figures, feathers, graveside mourners, small blocks of colour referring to the medicine wheel, and Beam's own portrait or handprint.

He often juxtaposed symbols of modern technology, such as a rocket, with images honouring ancient knowledge. A seminal image in many of his works is a numbered line, grid, graph or ruler, reflecting his distrust of European-style scientific measurement and knowledge. One of his famous works is called Burying the Ruler.

As Reid points out, "ruler" can also suggest a subjugator, and the corporal punishment meted out with rulers at residential schools.

Beam was fascinated by ancient aboriginal pottery unearthed in the American southwest. He lived for a time in New Mexico and learned time-honoured ceramic techniques. His bowls and vessels -- of which there are 16 in the show -- carry his unique iconography.

Beam addressed much more than aboriginal experience. He was concerned with global issues such as environmental destruction, sustainable agriculture and the shallowness of pop culture. Famous people who appear in his works include Anne Frank, Joseph Mengele, Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa and Anwar Sadat.

"My work is not made for Indian people," he once said, "but for thinking people."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2011 G3

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