Modern Metaphors: Frank Shebageget’s Light Industry

Modern Metaphors: Frank Shebageget’s Light Industry
Carleton University Art Gallery
10 May – 1 August, 2010
review by Deborah Kirk

In Light Industry, Frank Shebageget’s collection of work operates across cultural categories. Applying both narrative devices and perceptual strategies, Native handcraft traditions and Modernist practices, his work defies easy classification, and in the process articulates certain sympathies between two divergent modes of representation.

Despite a range of media that includes drawing, installation and video pieces, the exhibition is characterized by formal restraint. Lodge (2008), is an adaptation of an early work in which the artist faithfully reproduced in miniature the entire fleet of de Havilland’s beaver floatplanes (1,692 models in all) from basswood, steel nails and glue. The replicas’ humble but meticulously handcrafted fabrication contrast with the original’s industrial production — now an icon of Canadian engineering and design. Ubiquitous in travel to remote northern communities, the beaver has become synonymous with modern innovation, resource speculation and, by association, the exploitation of Native Peoples and lands in the pursuit of commercial interests. Piled high, this “beaver dam” points to the practice of hydro electric power generation, the displacement of communities and the devastation of vast wilderness areas. In this sense, the work is a metaphor for the place of the artist’s youth in rural Northern Ontario and more broadly, of that (and every) legacy of imperialism.

But in spite of those discursive references, the piece maintains a strong formal cohesion. In the repetition of identical forms, the unique objects combine to create an integrated whole. Similarly, his 2008 drawings Flight Patterns trace the component parts of each replica to become part industrial schematic, part abstract design. Beyond simple motif, geometry acts as the central organizing principle — the critical link between narrative elements and the expression of formal concerns. From the most basic structures at work in nature to those reflected in creative production from beadwork to architecture — each is reducible to a single note, an essential and autonomous expression of being. With this conflation of representational modes and productive methods, the works embody those complicated relationships that exist between and among cultural systems of value and exchange: social, geographic, philosophical and aesthetic.

For his new installation Cell (2010), Shebageget embraces an ever more restricted visual language and an increasingly intimate engagement with the object itself. Suspended in rows from a square aluminum frame, 49 nylon nets hang at regular intervals from steel fishing hooks to create a 100×100 cubic inch structure. Optical distortions triggered by movement around the form are echoed in the adjacent video Waterfall (2000); with its slowed image of water passing through the voids of a net, it stutters slightly, faltering, before looping to begin again. These visual anomalies provoke an interruption in normal perception and a heightened sense of self-awareness in relation to the form. Whereas the interpretation of previous work relied more heavily on external conditions, here, meaning is internalized in a direct appeal to the body’s sensory and cognitive faculties. The nets, largely stripped of their original context and use, are now decisively reclassified as “art objects.” With this emphasis on primary forms, and shift in orientation from the didactic to the intuitive, the pieces point to a reworking of contemporary and Native practices within the tradition of Minimalist concerns.

By locating his work in that broader cultural context, Shebageget avoids those limitations imposed by the usual tropes that all too often define “Native Art” and identity. But beyond those cultural parameters, Light Industry serves as model for a new representational possibilities; never entirely abandoning one mode of expression for the other, these works vacillate between two systems of language and meaning, whose positions, upon closer examination, prove to be less dissimilar than is usually supposed. It is a tendency that appears to be gaining traction in the larger cultural field, with the value of certain Modern essentialist perspectives up for review as a means to recover and reconstitute identity and experience.

Deborah Kirk is an artist, writer and Master of Visual Studies candidate at the University of Toronto.

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