Interdependence of Nature
Ink on paper, 22” x 27”, 1969
Draw and Tell
The Transformative Lines of Norval Morrisseau/Copper Thunderbird
At the Drawing Center's Drawing Room
40 Wooster Street, SoHo
This extraordinary show is made up of some 50 drawings, on loan from the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, by Norval Morrisseau, who also uses his Native American name, Copper Thunderbird.
He was born in 1932 on the Sand Point Reserve in northwestern Ontario and reared by his maternal grandfather, an Anishnaabe (also called Ojibwa or Chippewa) shaman from whom he learned much about tribal history, visual symbols and the spiritual utility of art. Later, as a painter and printmaker, Mr. Morrisseau combined traditional forms with modernist styles and in the early 1960's he became one of the first Native Americans to have a crossover career in contemporary art.
The drawings in the show, however, stand apart from much of this artist's other work for their psychological intensity. They were made while he was in prison in Canada beginning in 1969 and were executed in pencil on sheets from rolls of paper towels. All are of figures: human, animal (birds, bears, fish, snakes, mythical thunderbirds) or some combination of the two.
The style is fluidly pictographic. Outlines of forms are often drawn with a single continuous line; bodies are transparent, with fetuslike beings visible inside as if by X-ray. A few of the narrative scenes are naturalistic, but most have a keyed-up hallucinatory charge as hybrid beings interact, touching, exchanging energy in the form of quaking ''lines of power'' that radiate from eyes and limbs and pass into and through bodies, as seen in depictions of supernatural beings in Plains Indians ledger drawings.
Overall, there is a sense of a world in the process of relentless, urgent change, with no forms fixed or substantial, with no point of resolution or interval of repose. The results aren't ingratiating or beautiful. Like visionary work in many cultures, they're aggressive, sometimes violent, as much about fearfulness as about transcendence. And taken as a group, in a show, organized by Catherine de Zegher, director of the Drawing Center, and Gerald McMaster, a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, they provide a tense, pressure cooker of an experience.
NY Times - March 16, 2001