Carl Beam: Closing the Circle in Thunder Bay

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Carl Beam, The North American Iceberg (1985), acrylic, photo-serigraph, and graphite on plexiglas, 213.6 x 374.1 cm. NGC

Gallery Director Sharon Godwin says a newly opened retrospective exhibition of Carl Beam’s work at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery feels like a homecoming.

“In 1984 we had the first major exhibition of Carl Beam’s work in Thunder Bay. That show was called Altered Egos, and it was a pivotal exhibition. So for us to have the retrospective was important to close the circle,” she says. 

The show has been touring for over two years, leaving the National Gallery of Canada in 2010, and travelling to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, and the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina. Thunder Bay is the show’s final stop before the works in the exhibition return to the National Gallery in Ottawa.

“When you look at the places it’s been, and then it comes to the little Thunder Bay Art Gallery, we really appreciate that the National Gallery has the faith in us to have the show here,” Godwin says. “The work in the show is enormous, it’s complex to install, and some of the work is really delicate. We had to hire a separate conservator in addition to the National Gallery person who came. We have to have her come back halfway through the show, and again at the end, because some of the pieces need to be monitored so carefully.”

In 1984, Godwin was a gallery assistant in Thunder Bay, and clearly recalls the buzz surrounding that first exhibition of Beam’s work. Now, as gallery director, she says it’s equally thrilling to see some of those same pieces returning, 29 years later.

“There’s a piece in this show called Exorcism,” says Godwin. “We commissioned Carl in 1984 to do that piece for the show, and it has travelled. It’s a massive piece with arrows sticking in it. So for us, we were proud that the National Gallery took that piece for the show. It’s an important piece, but it’s a difficult piece to tour. They had to build a special crate for it.”

In 1986, Beam—an Ojibwa—became the first artist of Native ancestry to have his work purchased by the National Gallery as contemporary art. Beam died in 2005, but his work in a broad range of mediums continues to inspire and influence artists and gallery-goers.

Exhibition manager Lindsay Stamm Shapiro says her decision to bring the retrospective to the Museum of the North American Indian in New York City was based on Beam’s international status as both a well-known Ojibwa and major Canadian artist.

“I’m interested in the parallels between his work and other American work, and the range of his production in ceramics and works on paper, as well as combined paintings,” she says. “His work is very powerful, very aggressive, intellectually engaging. People were very impressed with the scale and ambition and intellectuality, as well the painterly quality of the work.”

The retrospective includes 49 pieces from a career that spanned three decades and Beam’s forays into ceramics, massive multimedia paintings, assemblages, sculptures and video works.

“A lot of people would say he was the artist’s artist,” says his wife of 26 years, artist Ann Beam. “He was doing things a lot of the other artists would like to have been able to combine, synthesize, invoke. He was an innovator in any media he picked up, whether it was printmaking or photo emulsion on canvas. He could bring a depth to things.”

One of the major pieces in the retrospective, Time Warp, is approximately 12 metres (40 feet) long. The Thunder Bay Gallery had to extend the height of a wall to accommodate it. “But it is such an important piece that we did it, and it is stunning,” says Godwin. “To me, he’s not just an important Aboriginal artist, but one of the most important Canadian artists that we have, primarily because of the issues he addressed and the mediums he worked in. He’s really one of the most important Canadian artists working in that time period.”

While there are pieces in this current show that were also in the 1984 exhibition, Godwin says it is particularly interesting to see how Beam grew throughout his artistic career.

We see this show, and we can’t help but wonder, if he were still with us, what work he’d be doing. He worked in so many different media, although everything has this thread going through it. You can tell it’s Carl Beam’s work.”

The Carl Beam (1943–2005) Retrospective is on view at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery from 12 January to 24 February 2013.

On Friday, 15 February at 7:30 p.m., a documentary about the artist—Aakideh: The Art & Legacy of Carl Beam—will be screened at the Paramount Theatre, 24 South Court Street, Thunder Bay. Admission by donation. The exhibition opened on 12 January and runs until 24 February.

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