I wondered if I had prepared too many questions around the topic of his First Nations heritage as I walked towards Neubacher Shor Contemporary for my meeting with Andrew Dexel, a BC artist visiting for the week of his opening. The questions seemed impossible to get around. Sometimes, his boldly coloured works are meditative mandalas that appear more Tibetan than Aboriginal. At other times however, they reek pleasantly of the stylized shapes and animals distinctive of North West Coast Indian art.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried about following this line of questioning. Dexel’s pride in his part-heritage (he’s half German) is evident and unavoidable in most of his answers. At one point in the conversation, he proclaims, “I’m so happy to be First Nations, I love everything about [it] my culture.”
Dexel is bridging the gap between contemporary Canadian culture and indigenous culture through his persona as well as his art. His appearance belies the fact that his art is borne primarily through traditional spiritual rites such as sweat-lodge. Dressed in black skate shoes, jeans, a simple grey jacket and a vintage trucker hat; he looks as though he may have stepped off the pages of a skate-boarding magazine. In parallel with this cultural paradox, his large scale canvases, covered in brightly hued contemporary acrylics, share motifs prominent in traditional First Nations art.
Dexel’s relationship to tradition becomes the focal point of our exchange. Musings on my own assumptions about his culture are prompted not only by the answers this young artist provides, but by the way he answers my questions. His responses to my queries fail to evolve into the flurry of theoretical discourse that I have become accustomed to artists feeding me. Instead, I want to call his replies monk-like, as they are often steeped in thoughtful silences and stories told to him by his elders.
When explaining the significance of the circle, which figures prominently in Dexel’s work, he recounts a story his dad told him about a dream in which he was living in a city, surrounded by squares, until he had pancakes for breakfast. Asking if I can understand the implied wisdom of the story, he apologizes for his crude retelling and clarifies some of the ways that the circle represents balance in his culture.
From what I can piece together of his personal history, it’s easy to see why the dream is significant for him. Dexel’s artistic pursuits began in Vancouver, as a graffiti artist. Around 8 years ago he started developing his skills as a painter, gaining acceptance to New Mexico’s prestigious Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). He spent little time in school however, citing that “he never wanted to study anything in depth to be limited by it, or to know more about life so that he could feel trapped by knowledge.”
Eventually, he moved away from Vancouver in order to make art and spirituality his complete focus. The one thing he made very clear to me was how for him, these two things are very much one in the same. When questioned about his art, he quotes another artist who deemed it Neo-Native Symbolist. He repeatedly stresses the importance of his use of colour and composition, inarguably the strongest elements of his work. The idea of pursuing a theoretical or conceptual direction within his art seems to ring as a moot point for him. The art is the spirituality, and his spiritual growth is the direction.
After dashing out of the gallery for an accelerated smoke break, he returns to our interview to tell me a final story. In it, there is a chief who is consumed by his desire for power. He traps a medicine man, who creates a deity to serve the chief The medicine man warns him to keep the deity busy, or it will grow bored and evil. The chief gets the deity to build him houses and gardens and all sorts of items of pleasure, but he is unable to continue to entertain it and it evolves into a powerful demon. Frustrated, the chief returns to the medicine man asking for help. The medicine man plucks one curly hair from his head and hands it to the demon ordering him to straighten it. As the demon repetitively pulls the hair, it only becomes curlier, and eventually the demon shrinks until it is almost out of sight.
“Do you understand?” asks Dexel. “The act of straightening the hair, that is my art.” Andrew Dexel’s paintings are on exhibition at Neubacher Shor Contemporary until April 30, 2013.