July 8, 2014

Keeping Time at TrépanierBaer

Andrea Williamson
July 08, 2014

In his introduction to the opening of the exhibition Keeping Time: Ledger Drawings and the Pictographic Traditions of Native North Americans, Yves Trépanier of TrépanierBaer Gallery claimed that the graphic arts tradition of ledger drawings made between 1820 and 1900 by Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains is foundational to our visual history. Although the 65 drawings comprising the exhibition, the largest ever of its kind, are part of a generally undiscovered practice, there exists a striking familiarity with their quality of urgency and economy, balanced with embellishment and dutiful observation. Beyond the recent revival in ledger-style drawing you can recognize a similarly svelte yet consigned representational language in the work of contemporary artists such as Brenda Draney, Marcel Dzama, or Sojo Truth Parsons. Clearly the communicative capacity and indispensability of art traditions that served a purpose in daily life beyond the purely aesthetic has been emulated by those well within the art world.

To speak of “usefulness” in art is tricky territory because it threatens the loftiness and aesthetic purity of high art. However, according to ethnic studies scholar and founder of the Plains Indians Ledger Art Project (PILA) Dr. Ross Frank, the inexorability of ledger art, which was by and large created for and from within the Indigenous North American culture, had a function not unlike the art of the contemporary art market of asserting status and maintaining history. The difference is that the status imbued by the ownership of the drawings, as it was with the precursory buffalo hide paintings, was not only of economical wealth but spiritual wealth too. And the histories depicted in these spatializations of time are also of a spiritual nature. The privacy and immediacy of the drawings afforded by easily obtainable ledger books, coloured pencils, and watercolour paints compared to the relative publicity and laboriousness of painted hides likely changed the nature of recorded information so that this body of work is regarded as a concise and detailed description of the changing ways of life and rituals that were affected by the colonialist relocation of peoples to reservations. Keeping Time reminds us of why drawing exists as a medium in its own right, and that its function, beyond any stylistic trends, was and is to excel in communicative richness.

To read article online, please click here.

Trépanier Baer: https://trepanierbaer.com/

Keeping Time: Ledger Drawings and the Pictographic Traditions of Native North Americans, continues until August 23.

Image Credit: Macnider Ledger Book (p. 188), Sioux, ca. 1880, paper, pencil, watercolour