It is a maze, this art world where a proliferation of works worthy of notice rise to the top only as often as the art machine can support a way through the many paths that can be taken to a viable end. Too often criticism can be swift with an eye for faults but lacking a more penetrating judgment that recognizes that truth can spur civilization forward as has been seen in many of the high points in art history. Joice Hall’s lush painting GWAII HAANAS – Islands and Sacred Sites prompts just such a positive critical response.

The late Linda Nochlin in her pivotal essay The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law wrote: “realism implies a system of values involving close investigation of particulars, a taste for ordinary experience in a specific time, place and social context; and an art language that vividly transmits a sense of concreteness. Realism is more than and different from willful virtuosity, or the passive reflexivity of the mirror image.”

Hall was a surrealist, then a realist (Vies des Arts No. 248 Fire and Brimstone reveals how she dealt with the raging Okanagan fires) and now, she says she is “an idealist”. Nochlin had associated idealism with abstraction, a style that she placed at opposites to realism. “ … supporters of the realist cause in the sixties and seventies viewed the breaking away from the artifices of empty purity as part of a larger struggle for scientific truth, progress and social justice. This does not reduce artistic phenomena to superstructures of an “underlying” social causality, but rather, sees stylistic and social phenomena as integrated and interdependent.” It is in this realm of interdependency that Hall reveals her “idealism”.

Hall’s painting was begun during the Gwaii Haanas Residency Program in 2017 where Hall was an artist in residence along with the Haida storyteller and performance artist Kung Jaadee (Roberta Kennedy is her English name) and Yael Brotman from Toronto. Hall originally imagined the painting as a backdrop for a performance by Kung Jaadee.

GWAII HAANAS – Islands and Sacred Sites is a masterpiece in a contemporary reality that is fraught with disturbing lesions.

Hall comes from the prairies and like many had first encountered old growth forest in Emily Carr’s works. Hall had sensed there an expression of the sublime that not only celebrated the beauty of nature but also recognized a power where fear was justifiably embedded. In 1999 on hikes around Oak Bay in BC, Joice Hall’s first encounter with the western hemlock, red cedar and Sitka spruce forests inspired a sense of sheltering magnificence in the grandeur of nature. She felt at one within the forest. There is a visible reverence in GWAII HAANAS – Islands and Sacred Sites completed almost twenty years later.

The Artist Residency Program of Gwaii Haanas on the Southern end of what was called Moresby Island seeks artists to bring new meanings to Canada’s natural and cultural treasures through a five to ten day workshop facilitated by the Haida Nation and Parks Canada. Hall was taken to visit Sacred Haida Sites, some also World Heritage Sites and National Historic Sites, where Haida Watchmen, members of the Haida Nation, shared the meaning and history of the sites with the artists, the intent being to further an awareness of this unique and precious ecosystem as well as to share insights of the culture of the indigenous people who originally lived there. Traditionally Haida Watchmen were depicted as three figures in high hats often carved at the top of poles, standing sentinel over the village.

Recognizing the environments that were – and are – the Indigenous livelihood and spiritual realms, of the Haida Nation, Hall’s piece GWAII HAANAS – Islands and Sacred Sites consists of a top panel, sky; a mid panel, land; and at the bottom is water. Land is three panels horizontally that each depict a sacred site where once there was a long house. The long house had to be built within a day according to Haida tradition in order to appease the earth spirits and today a verdant overgrowth lies like a mantel over the fallen poles. The mossy overgrowth clothes the sacred remains. Hall’s skill at depicting nature from a realist perspective – she has “golden hands” – serves the subject as GWAII HAANAS – Islands and Sacred Sites pays just homage to the sites. Set above the panels that depict marine life, monochromatic earth colors resonate in contrast with flashy marine life. Hall pieced together the marine life from photos she had taken on the residency when the artists were taken in a small paddled boat to visit an inlet at low tide, a waterway best not disturbed by the rumbling motors of modernity. The colors blaze as she juxtaposed species that through contrast and simpatico enhance individual radiance through her selected interconnectivity.

In a time where truth and reconciliation is forefront, GWAII HAANAS – Islands and Sacred Sites steps up. Nochlin’s invocation of “ordinary experience in a specific time” is brought up a notch for this was not for Hall an ordinary experience but a very special exposure. And the idealism that she brings forward is far from “empty purity.” That she had within her toolbox the sensitivity, skill, informed practice and technical acumen to capture her exposure to these rarified natural and cultural heritage sites is where critical attention needs to be placed. GWAII HAANAS – Islands and Sacred Sites is a masterpiece in a contemporary reality that is fraught with disturbing lesions. It is a positive, meritorious and truthful evocation of hope; apolitical yet a testament to the rich heritage that all members of humanity must preserve with consciousness. 

GWAII HAANASIslands and Sacred Sites
Joice M. Hall
Kelowna Art Gallery, Kelowna
Jan 20—April 01, 2018