Reading the art of the Pacific Northwest coast

I recently read Hilary Steward's "Looking At Indian Art of the Northwest Coast"  which opened my eyes in how to parse this type of art, and I wanted to share the basics of how to recognize the elegant layout, the musical composition where white space and shape provide balance in an almost Escher-esque repetition of form.  Below is a small preview of the basic concepts, quoting from the book:

The two basic colours of the Northwest Coast graphic are are black and red. Black, the primary colour, is mainly used for the form line, a strong contoured line which structures the design and clarifies the anatomy of the subject by defining the head.

Probably the single most characteristic shape used in this art [Northwest Coast graphic art] is the rounded rectangle: the ovoid.

Simple ovoids, and ovoids within ovoids

U forms and split-U forms are the secondary most characteristic features, followed by the S form (see below).

U forms and S forms
U-forms and S-forms

In two-dimensional design, large ovoids may be used to delineate the head of a creature or human; they can represent eye sockets or major joins, or help form the shape of a wing, tail, fluke or fin. Like other elements, they may also serve to fill empty spaces and corners.

The shapes fill the space, and anatomy and proportion are adjusted to create a pleasing layout.

The specific design elements refer to a particular creature, or a particular story - just like in European Christian art where a figure with keys must be Peter the apostle, and a lady holding a limp body: the mother of Christ as the 'Pieta', and if one grew up with the folklore and narrative of that culture, the image immediately summons the story.


Split-U forms

For example, look at this wonderful print from the fantastic exhibition "Guud san Glans - Robert Davidson - A line That Bends But Does Not Break" at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Q1 2023: the creature is re-shaped to fit the rectangle.



Painting by Robert Davidson
Robert Davidson, Raven stealing the Moon, 1977







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