Nearly all artwork is the product of cultural exchange, and Inuit art in Canada is no exception. Though it was shaped by centuries of tradition and the unique constraints of arctic life, Inuit art merges traditional themes with contemporary perspectives, and it reflects the uneven legacy of contact with the south. For decades, Inuit artists have combined traditional and recently-introduced materials, techniques and subjects, balancing their own aims against those of government initiatives and the demands of southern buyers.
Influence flows both ways, however, and art from the Far North has made a definite impact south of 60 degrees.
Capitalizing on the Winnipeg Art Gallery's unmatched collection, Looking Up is an exhibition that brings together eight local artists who have been directly or indirectly influenced by Inuit art, showcasing their contributions alongside works by 18 of their northern contemporaries.
Simon Hughes presents a highly refined, geometric rendering of broken sea ice in Fractured Monochrome #4. Visible through precisely defined bands of translucent blue oil colour, the painting's plywood support takes on a chilly iridescence. Printmaker Jeanette Johns abstracts the landscape further in A View of the Infinite North, a crystalline panorama of 12 subtly varied, hand-coloured etchings.
Sylvia Matas imagines the arctic in idiosyncratic, elemental terms. Her austere drawings and collages borrow from meteorology, botany and astronomy, weaving a loose tangle of cryptic diagrams and fragmentary weather forecasts.
Figures in transition between human and animal form, such as Nick Sikkuark's Shaman, an assemblage of bone and antler, and the 10-headed chimera in Martha Noah's drawing, Bird-Being, are a hallmark of Inuit iconography. The lacy, interwoven birds that Paul Robles painstakingly cuts from coloured paper echo a similar sense of interconnectedness and transformation.
Aganetha Dyck's felted crochet "Shrinks," with their profusion of ruffles and odd proportions, might be surreal garments or otherworldly figures in their own right. Dyck cites the wool felt tapestries of Jessie Oonark and others as a source of inspiration (a concurrent exhibition, From the Land: Materials & Message in Inuit Art, collects a number of striking examples).
Krisjanis Katkins-Gorsline's untitled canvases translate the characteristic abstract forms of Inuit art -- all gentle curves and sharp points, like wind-worn ice -- into dense matrixes. Rock Landscape, a roiling, rhythmic felt-tip pen drawing by Cape Dorset artist Shuvinai Ashoona, offers a striking visual counterpart.
Looking Up features two members of Winnipeg's now-defunct Royal Art Lodge, Neil Farber and Michael Dumontier. One of the show's unexpected highlights, an assortment of Dumontier's small conceptual works, echoes a resourceful simplicity common in Inuit art. With a single cut, a wooden board becomes a knife, and a sheet of steel becomes a freestanding candle; rocks placed on the upturned corners of a piece of paper create a mask. Nearby stone carvings by John Pangnark and Andy Miki, which include faces and figures simplified to the point of complete abstraction, are clear evidence of a shared sensibility.
Though Looking Up's local contributors are ultimately responding to works in the WAG's collection rather than engaging with Inuit artists directly, the exhibition does its best to give all of the work equal standing. Its greatest success is that it shows the esthetic innovations of Inuit art for what they are: contributions to an ongoing dialogue that can bridge cultural and geographic distances while honouring tradition and respecting difference. It presents the work of northern artists not as curiosities to look at but as unique accomplishments that we can all "look up" to.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.