A new exhibition of work by Cape Dorset artist Tim Pitsiulak is an occasion for learning: learning more about life in Canada’s high arctic, and learning more about the developing talent of one of the north’s finest artists. His pictures of life in the arctic record the environment and the way of life he loves, bringing us close to the land and the people who know it best. They arise from the kind of patience and careful looking that can be rewarded with a walrus carcass one day (when he is out hunting on the land with friends) or with a great work of art the next (when he is working in the studio). It’s all about watching and noticing the details, whether that be finding a hole in the ice where a seal has been, or capturing in a drawing the hungry eye of the Greenland shark, the tense, shoulder-hunching pose of a hunter at the floe edge, or the inflection of the hooves of a caribou as it prances across the tundra with that weightless bounce he captures so perfectly. Pitsiulak is the great observer.
This new show makes clearer than ever his special gift at working on a large scale, which he uses to summon the massive, meaty presence of an old battle-scarred walrus, a beluga gliding magisterially through underwater space, of the silent hump of a snowy hill illuminated by afternoon sun. Always, for southern viewers at least, there is a sense of shock and revelation. It is hard to imagine witnessing such wonders as part of daily life — the aspect of life in the north that the news reports of glue sniffing and gun violence tend to miss. The real story — the one that includes as well the tremendous feeling of community up north, the beauty of the land, the thrill of harnessing its animals and birds, the depth of its people’s traditions — is more complicated. We are part of this more complicated story, and it is part of us, a narrative that weaves back in time to the Thule myths and marks that inform his vision.
This collection of drawings reveals some new sides to Pitsiulak, like the joke-cracker who imagines a hip hopping walrus, or a white fox DJ wearing headphones. We discover, as well, Pitsiulak the dreamer, who revisits Inuit legend and brings us back a tusk-bearing male Edna to rival the female water goddess, or Qalupalik, an evil, green taloned underwater spirit with squid legs, streaming its way malevolently through dark water.
The exhibition also shows us the artist grappling with the new north, figured in his self portrait with his son, called Passing on Traditions (in which the pair seem to share the contemplation of landscapes drawn on curved illuminated sheafs of paper), his depiction of a hot-rod snow machine (emblazoned with US and Canadian flags), or his drawing Computer Generation, in which an Inuit youth crouches before his laptop, his head wired to the keyboard in a kind of closed circuitry. In the studio, Pitsiulak often relies on the internet and on his own hunting photos for source imagery, using them as aids to memory, but this drawing seems to worry at the thought that the screen may some day be the only source of visions. Will future generations have the same attachment to the land? What will be lost in that transition? Whether looking back or looking forward, Pitsiulak has a pair of the sharpest eyes around. We’ve come to count on him for that.Sarah Milroy, November 2013