Visual Art

A Totem Pole Made of Christmas Lights

Bringing Superwrongness to Life

A Totem Pole Made of Christmas Lights

courtesy of the artist and lawrimore project

MERRY XMAS, HAPPY RAVEN FACE ‘Expanding Fields,’ by Raymond Boisjoly, 2008.

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At the turn of the 20th century, the identity of the barely formed city of Seattle depended on a single visual symbol: the totem pole. Postcards bearing the image of the Alaskan totem pole that was erected in Pioneer Square in 1899 traveled the world, expressing "Seattleness" for all to see.

A totem pole still stands in Pioneer Square. It's not the first edition, which contained the cremains of a revered Tlingit woman; it had been chopped down and stolen from an Alaskan village, then was set ablaze by arsonists, who were never caught, one night in 1938. Seattle was not Seattle without the pole, so city fathers sought Tlingit carvers to do a remake. They happened upon the best-known local carvers in the tradition playing baseball, which seemed too American, not native enough, so the work was outsourced to some Tlingits still living in Alaska—to whom many relocated Tlingits would send money they earned from doing tourist-based work like carving in Seattle. None of the Salish tribes—the tribes of this land—carve totem poles at all. The symbol that meant Seattle was imported, burned, then reimported, until finally it was replaced by a flying saucer on legs.

Not far from where the Pioneer Square totem pole stands, across an old, pockmarked street and between the tall trees of Occidental Park, there's currently another totem pole, decked out in Christmas lights, sparkling in the window of a storefront on Main Street. It beckons from across the park. The storefront is in the Union Trust Annex building, which also went up at the turn of the 20th century (to house the Superior Candy and Cracker Company). Today, it's the home of the second iteration of the once-very-large contemporary-art gallery Lawrimore Project. Before the economy tanked, Lawrimore Project was a 5,000-square-foot wonderland on Airport Way; now it is one chastening room, a pointed reflection of what Seattle will support when it comes to contemporary art now. These small shows are teasers for artists; the gallery spends as much energy representing artists in faraway art fairs.

The totem pole that's currently at the gallery is not a purist vision of nativeness, but neither is it an empty joke. It's flat, but it's three-sided. Each side is like two segments of a folding screen, the pieces of plywood joined together with metal brackets in the center. The plywood still bears the black-ink stamps of its manufacturing, and the brackets still bear bar-code stickers. These materials are all transitional. They are, as the title of the show—The Spirit of Inconstancy—suggests, inconstant. They are not the traditional, beautiful cedar used in Northwest carving. They are not joined as if they came together naturally; it is easy to imagine taking them apart.

On each of the three open-book-like plywood surfaces, strings of multicolored Christmas lights have been secured with nails in a pattern taken from a souvenir totem pole the artist found (he thinks it was produced in China). The pattern is an adaptation from Northwest Coast formline, a style marked by bold shapes and colors developed by the Haida and Tlingit tribes of what's now known as Alaska and Western Canada. The artist, Raymond Boisjoly, uses flatness for humor. Each outer plywood edge is laser cut into a cartoonlike silhouette of a totem pole.

Boisjoly has taken a mass-produced, hollowed-out version of a Haida totem—great Vs made by the twinkling lights of the pagan version of a Christian holy day seeming to form the eyebrows and beak of a raven, but who can say exactly what animal this is?—and made it into even more of a pancake, while somehow bringing it back to superwrong life. For all the cultural critique embedded in this rendition of a rendition, there's joy in its soft radiance; it is not a cynical object. Boisjoly is based in Vancouver, BC. He grew up in Chilliwack, BC, about 100 kilometers east of Vancouver, son of a Haida mother and Quebecois father. Throughout his life, he has been asked to represent one side of himself or another, isolate and present one facet at a time. In his suburban grade school, the aboriginal students were separated and talked to about their aboriginalness. Meanwhile, Boisjoly doesn't speak the native tongue of his father, French. He seems to have responded to the whole thing with curious amusement leavened by sincere compassion.

Boisjoly made this sculpture four years ago, when he was graduating with an MFA from the University of British Columbia. He called it Expanding Fields, in a reference to the 1970s art-historical theory of "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," which Rosalind Krauss devised as a way to look at new intersections of art, architecture, and landscape—each category changing when they came together rather than remaining stable. He was also influenced, early on, by accounts of aborigines (including the Haida) by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Translation has been a running theme in Boisjoly's work—his other piece on display at Lawrimore Project is called The Writing Lesson: Seattle, and it is a pictogram of the city's name.

It's part of a series of pictograms of indigenously derived local place names (Chilliwack, Seattle, Yakima). For Seattle, a white vinyl stencil is applied to the front of a half-inch-thick piece of Plexiglas with black construction paper on the back. The paper is fading constantly in a fuzzy silhouette around the raised vinyl stencil. You will get a changing view through the glass as the light marks the paper over time.

The vinyl stencil is a jagged, Rorschachy script that brings to mind a splayed insect or a masked face. S, E, A, T, T, L, E—the word is rendered angrily and unrecognizably. You can't read the Duwamish chief's transliterated name in this drawing, you can only guess at which lines are meant to form an A or a T, the same way you can only sort of make out a raven in the lights of Expanding Fields. The script for Seattle is adapted from the logo style of Norwegian black-metal bands that emphasize the violent Christianization of Scandinavia, where pagan holy sites were destroyed in order to throw an entire aging culture into crisis. The Writing Lesson: Seattle is an anti-postcard. It will fall in on itself, then it will disappear. recommended


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alpha unicorn 1
“The white man kills any­thing that is wild. More than any­thing else, the white man fears any­thing that is wild.” ~ Lakota Elder
Posted by alpha unicorn on January 11, 2012 at 9:40 AM · Report this
First of all...Gosh Jen, isn't this just so predictable that you would choose to write about a Lawrimore Project-your 'go-to' feed for all your hip contempo-casual art needs? (you should get a job there!) Question-Do you ALWAYS have to justify a critique/write-up entering with an anger based outrage against an injustice? By setting up the context of your version of worthy and relevant with cultural/racial scandal? Think about it. You're funny, with your Krauss reference, because that WOULD validate it for sure-right?!?
B,O,R,I,N,G,(in Christmas lights)

As for the art, well, I'll just say-who doesn't love Christmas lights? :)
Posted by northwest mystic on January 11, 2012 at 10:33 AM · Report this
Northwest Mystic, you make me so sad. It's not my Krauss reference, dummy -- it's the artist's. It's not my totem pole reference -- it's the artist's. Why not go fight the artists yourself? Go to their web sites, call them all bullshit. I realize I'm the only one you feel comfortable taking on -- anonymously. But goddamn, you've gotten past pathetic.
Posted by Jen Graves on January 11, 2012 at 12:03 PM · Report this
Bravo Ms. Graves, totally nailed it (him?)! (was thinking same thing, just not nearly as succinctly perfectly).
Posted by Ranchhand on January 11, 2012 at 1:15 PM · Report this
Jen, Jen, Jen, Jen, ANGRY!?! You are a public, well known local journalistic figure of your OWN CHOICE,and you are paid for it. "Jen Graves" is a media personality, a name on a masthead, a local 'celebratant', and a professional (I hope). Take it like one!!! I realize your self-aggrandized state of pompous righteousness and entitlement leads you to believe you are not only right but teflon-but "yer not Blanche, yer not!" I'm sad you're sad (actually, no,not really) but your unprofessional, myopic alliances with these elitist few and your rude and mean exclusionary practices are not to be overlooked-period.Is it too much to ask you to be fair, smart, and informed? To actually look for the positive angle in things-the unexpected-and not just "your thing" but the community??? There is SO much ELSE out there to hear about week to week instead of you driving it home about the noble few, the real dealers, the ones worth your nod-th "smart art".It is just boring and small, and not all that smart.. As I've said before, If there was any other venue in town for the good stuff to get coverage you could wack-a-doodle all night!
As for fighting the artist-whatever-first and foremost-EVERY ARTIST has the right to be who they are and what they create is personal and their own. NO POINT. YOU CALL BULLSHIT!!! DO YOUR JOB! By including the Krauss reference(his or yours, not the point) was your mistake without taking it apart and if you agree-then own it and tell us why it is so! But it's not valid. Anonymous is my right-it's set up that way for everyone. And besides, GET OVER IT!!! All the dilettantes and hothouse flowers who whine and feign empathy for y'all and outrage(loaded with catty insults and high school marginalization,btw) over art world commentaries and critique should not show their work in public venues then, just keep it private, personal and pure.
You find ME pathetic...likewise.
Posted by northwest mystic on January 11, 2012 at 9:12 PM · Report this
I'll just rehearse the request that has been made of you here a hundred times, to no avail, for good measure: Please name names of shows you'd rather I'd written about this week, or any other week. Thanks.
Posted by Jen Graves on January 12, 2012 at 11:00 AM · Report this
Northwest Mystic is like roadkill: swerve to avoid it and don't look too closely. Even with the goody two-shoes language, NWM is an abusive stalker. I peeked at his/her/it's profiles some time ago because I thought it was somebody's idea of a sick joke. The idiocy is always prevalent but what many people don't realize is simply how much anti-Jen crap this nut job has written. VERTIGO INDUCING towers of babble. Somebody needs to post this person's real identity. NWM has a big mouth and people know who this person's identity is. There is nothing illegal about posting a name. I think it would promote civil behavior.

I'm going to repeat the most important thing that I keep seeing over an over again here, Northwest mystic: YOU ARE MENTALLY ILL AND NEED TO GET SOME HELP.
Posted by so very tired on January 12, 2012 at 12:22 PM · Report this
@7 Sooo...YOU WON'T post your name and identity "so very tired"...but you espouse the 'good ol' tar n' feather-witch hunt' method of violation of rights and privacy?!?! All because "you deserve to know and how dare you have an opinion and voice it with your big mouth"...R-i-i-i-ght? Never mind that we live in America and everyone else can have an opinion(as long as its 'nice' and you agree-doesn't that make you a redneck?), as well as Jen can say what she wants about all 'this' with far-reaching ramifications and influential rhetoric.
Sounds fair...NOT!
Stalking, hell no, opinionated, hell yes!
Posted by northwest mystic on January 12, 2012 at 5:08 PM · Report this
You are mentally ill.

Posted by so very tired on January 12, 2012 at 5:32 PM · Report this
Throwing "mentally ill" around is so rude and disrespectful to the people who suffer daily from this tragic disease. Show some respect.
Posted by northwest mystic on January 12, 2012 at 5:59 PM · Report this
How about you show some respect for the people that you shit on every week.


and you cause people harm. you make people feel shitty all the time. This has been going on for a very long time. you are a terrible excuse for a human being an insult to other mentally ill people because you're smart enough to know better and at least most other mentally people aren't as abusive to so many strangers as you. I feel sorry for you. I wish there was an apathy machine I could hook you up to so you could feel all horrible ick that you make people feel.

with all the terrible things going on in the world (and wonderful things to experience with decent thoughtful exchanges of ideas) you spend all your time stalking Jen Graves and shitting on artists you never met, probably haven't seen most the shows you talk shit about. week after week, "Jen Graves" this and "Jen Graves" that. YOU ARE COMPLETELY OBSESSED with Jen Graves and you have serious mental problems. Get some medication or therapy. would you like me to post your endless rants? they are not the words of a mentally stable person.

you need to take a long hard look at yourself and all the horrible things you say about people. do you even give a damn about how many people you step on or is it an artist camp that is akin to a city full of assholes that you can drop a bomb on, no cares in the world for the consequences of your actions.

you cause people pain, can you get that into your sick, thick skull?

Posted by soooo very tired on January 12, 2012 at 9:58 PM · Report this
ron_in_PDX 12
Well. That certainly went south in a hurry.
Posted by ron_in_PDX on January 13, 2012 at 11:45 AM · Report this
Best writing in The Stranger in months... Jen, Thank You, for making me feel, like you felt this, experienced the piece(s) and thought that experience through. Occasionally, insight can be appreciated, too, alongside the art that inspired it.
Posted by soundsecrets on January 13, 2012 at 1:50 PM · Report this
In my humble opinion, JG, this article is just another example of your hard work and professional reportage on art appearing in Seattle, art that clearly is worth viewing and worthy work at that. We’ve watched you, as well as our old other, Ms. Hackett, take copious notes on many a site to do justice to the writing. In your case, one can detect a great deal of thought and research behind your art writing. Sometimes it’s quick and from your gut but, as in this and the last piece, it clearly has involved a great deal of analysis and forethought.

Boisjoly’s EXPANDING FIELDS certainly delivers a bevy of statements as does his self-explanation as artist. I’m always impressed that most anything S. Lawrimore selects represents a complex art pov that will reward investigation and any search to understand the theory behind the choice. As Vanessa Place seems to have suggested, conceptual art presents a cogito-tease; Boisjoly appears to deliver. First though, I think I can’t avoid comment on the choice of title and infatuation with Krauss by the artist. I don’t mean this to lessen the importance of the artist or his work. As I understand it, the title, in its meaning given by Krauss, is a description of a whole class of art. For her the Expanded Field is clearly all the new style of art that comes after Modernism. So this title is like calling your work Unmodernism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, etc. Further, the Expanded Field had already happened when Krauss wrote about it in 1979. For Krauss, Serra, Rauschenberg, Robert Morris and many had already gotten the job done. Many decades have passed since and Boisjoly is caught in a time warp to address the Expanded Field which is all around him and the idea somewhat passé. In embracing Krauss in his early years as artist is understandable given her power and influence at one moment in art. But admiring her comes with strange intellectual baggage. She was very academic, anti-Greenbergian, and often dedicated a ton of magnificent words in an article that could be compressed to a few words. Her ideas were often vulnerable. Her prose is stuffed with the mentalistic excess of the both Continental and Postcontinental thinkers (Not that they don’t have some good ideas). In her grand opus, THE OPTICAL UNCONCIOUS, she suggests, strangely, by way of Lacan, that we need to view art as “the castrative status of weaning.” My God! Still, none of this detracts from the power of Boisjoly’s piece to mesmerize and excite us.

Boisjoly’s Expanding Fields exits as somewhat vulgar cuts of unfinished plywood joined and adorned with a Christmas tree light drawing weakly suggesting Northwest Indian art, but with a certain compelling zing. The delivery of meaning in this work reminds me of a couple of Jack Daw’s pieces; EAGLE FEATHER ROACH CLIP and INDIAN FLASK, although Boisjoly seems to have a more layered and richer set of ideas going on here. One might also see a connection to the expanded field work of Heide Hinrich and Matt Browning, amongst others. Boisjoly's plywood is clearly not the wood of venerated collectable hand carved totem poles, nor are his Christmas lights pretending a northwest native art form. This is another area where I seem to depart with the artist. I can’t speak for any Native American but I can observe the Native chaos. Sadly many young Northwest Native artists trample the traditional rules of native formline patterns either out of ignorance or a desire to be pop or freely, abstractionally interpretive. Boisjoly seems to get off here because he’s apparently copying an Asian interpretation that is NOT formline and could easily be Polynesian or who knows what. When I was young, the local Northwest Coast Indian societies had lost their contact and connection to their traditions and elders. During this time a teenage Caucasian Eagle Scout, Bill Holm, took up interest in the tradition and resurrected the Northwest Coast native dances and, as a UW professor wrote the book on formline: Northwest Coast Indian Art, an Analysis of Form. He and SAM’s Native Arts of the Americas or Oceania Council are a resource for accuracy on this. The story I heard was that the Coastal Indians had lost their roots and Holm brought it back to them by showing them there own dances and explaining formline to them. The idea that there was a group of Native Coastal Indians up north that continued the true Coastal traditions of totem pole carving may be a bit romantic. Has there always been continuity for these Natives or did they lose it? Was there a Coastal Native formline tradition alive up north in the Native hinterlands or did Holm resurrect the way or was the true way lost forever? The reality might disappoint. Further, the whites displayed totem poles as not just a mark of their taste but a mark of their disdain for the occupiers of the concurred land. Denny had little use for the occupiers of the Duwamish delta.

In recent years, while working with Coastal tribal Indians, I observed natives promoting Smoke shops, Indian basketball, hip-hop and gangster rap dress and behavior, Casinos and taking on a homogenized version of Nativity practiced in Pow Wows. In these matters, Alexi Sherman’s shunning of Res life is insightful. It is altogether possible, unfortunately, most Native American Indians have little or no idea of what it was like for that their ancestors and their whole reality has become something of a very strange simulacra. I don’t speak for the reality of the Native American, they do, but it seems very complicated. So Boisjoly’s doesn’t seem to have anything near formline here. But still his work shines. I think it kind of speaks to the native identity problems I’ve alluded to. There has to be a lot of pain in losing one’s roots.

The Xmas tree lights remind us of the nostalgic white Christians that outlawed many Indian ways. They remind us of The Native embrace of the Western ways. They remind us of the Edison technology, incandescent lights, now in decline. This suggests the piece is ephemeral. We have the combine, assemblage and translation. The piece is like an Asian fake Indian item designed to sell to tourists.

This being said, he clearly seems to have created a piece that fits Krause’s idea of new art work that defies old categories and historical critical views. Is it an Indian piece or a Western piece? Does it reflect a kind of Orientalism or Occidentalism?

Your article is guaranteed to push northwest mystic’s buttons by the nature of the art and the Lawrimore thing. One has to give so much credit to Lawrimore. Stuck in and dedicated to doing something continually significant in that new so small space is a thing to admire. In taking to a number of gallerists in town over the years it seems that, unlike you or me, they are stuck in their galleries like prisoners and can’t get out to see the art in other places in town.

To the collector, I would say take note of these two pieces that are remarkable comments on Seattle’s early interaction with the local Natives.
Seattle forsook the Duwamish, removed all the lumber from all the local islands and Chief Seattle was moved to Suquamish, a strange graveyard easily but seldom visited by ferry. Suquamish was beautifully funky 15 years ago but has now been upscaled by new Native money. Maybe sad. If you take the trip to the graveside, drive to Hansville and visit the park at Point no Point. In my youth it was an outland of vacation shacks for salmon fishermen. I’ve sat in the moonlight in a rowboat at midnight on these shoals and watched the magic of thousands of salmon bodies illuminated by phosphorescence in the dark water rushing to the entrance of streams and rivers, magic the Natives knew. Now you can see a knot of fishing boats hopelessly clustered for a catch the hills filled with outrageous homes.

These two pieces, commenting on Seattle’s encounter with the Native should be attractive to 1% public funds.

Posted by GFinholt on January 15, 2012 at 3:01 PM · Report this
alpha unicorn 15
"How can you ever repay the last 30 seconds you have stolen from my life?"
~ John Water's Desperate Living
Posted by alpha unicorn on January 15, 2012 at 6:26 PM · Report this
DM1 16
brilliant review. Brava!
Posted by DM1 on January 16, 2012 at 9:21 AM · Report this
Please continue writing well about the things that interest you.
Posted by pox on January 16, 2012 at 11:54 AM · Report this
lauramae 18
Hey GFinholt, time does not stand still. Changing of "roots" as you call it doesn't mean that they were ever gone or forgotten.

And while Holm's book was seminal in terms of describing the elements of formline, he didn't write it as a guide and has said as much. Also too anyone AT ALL who suggest that somehow Holm re-delivered art to Northwest Indians has an extremely bloated sense of white knightism. Jesus Christ, anyway.

I would be fascinated to know which "young Northwest Native trample the rules of Northwest Formline" you are thinking of in your very long post above. AND if you understand the differences between Salish, Northern, kwakwaka'wakw,Nuu-chah-nulth/Makah styles or whether or not the artist who dared leap beyond 1908 was intentionally suggesting something else.

That aside, liked the story Ms. Graves.
Posted by lauramae on January 16, 2012 at 12:22 PM · Report this
A small interesing detail left out of the retelling of the burned totem pole is that the city when it commissioned the replacement was asked to pay for the first one they stole, and gladly did, in addition to paying for the new one.
Posted by Powdermonkey on January 17, 2012 at 7:55 AM · Report this
The piece is simply retarded. A waste of time to look at. Nothing against the artist, just a crap piece. To say something positive, at least it's a wee bit better then a paper bag at JH. Total poop.
Posted by bobbywood on January 17, 2012 at 11:31 AM · Report this
Vade Mecum 21
This is a well written and informative review! I love the parallels that you draw between his work and the history of the totem pole in Pioneer Square. My initial interpretation of his art was that it suggests assimilation and the scars of the past, but I also see a self awareness acknowledging that as oversimplified, delving into more intimate and tricky areas. Seeing the totem also immediately reminded me of other Seattle artists' work- not in a derivative way, but the concept of the expanding field as a hub or non-hierarchical intersection, an amalgam of history. As you suggested, this show seems to be a small taste. It left me wanting to see more and I'm glad I looked up Boisjoly's works. I saw a picture of Boisjoly and on the palm of his hand he had written "important for us all"

I once saw an inupiat winter festival where a man dressed as elvis did a traditional dance while also incorporating moves from the "macarena" into the ritual... I had the impression that his dance was just as potent as a gathering that had happened hundreds of years ago. He had assimilated pop culture and used it to acknowledge the world as it is today with humor --yet it is part of an ancient ritual that embodies unchanged principals.
Posted by Vade Mecum on January 17, 2012 at 5:08 PM · Report this

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