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Contemporary traditionalists

Sun., March 9, 2008

When you think of American Indian art, do you think of sandblasted glass? Woodcuts? Lithographs? Images of hypodermic needles? Perhaps you will, after taking in this comprehensive overview of the best of American Indian art today, “Tradition and Change: A Survey of Contemporary American Indian Art,” at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture now through June 29.

These 42 works – assembled mostly from the Missoula Art Museum’s Contemporary Indian Art Collection, private collections and the MAC’s own collection – were all produced by American Indian artists.

Yet these 26 artists are making modern, contemporary art in wildly different ways, while still drawing from deep wells of cultural tradition. Thus the words “tradition” and “change” in the title.

Take, for instance, a relief print titled “Midnight Feelings,” by Jason Elliott Clark, a young artist enrolled in the Algonquin tribe. The imagery in the print is largely traditional: Mythic animal figures dominate the piece, along with other ancient signs and symbols. Yet look closely and you’ll see hypodermic needles scattered around.

“These signs and symbols have great depth and history, but then there are the syringes floating through it,” said Ben Mitchell, the MAC’s senior curator of art, who assembled this exhibit. “Meth and other drug use in the reservation system is epidemic. So he’s really bridging tradition and change.”

This tradition-change theme is even more overt in Clark’s lithograph, titled “The Battle Over Tradition.” A man is divided down the middle, half in a business suit, half in traditional Native American dress.

A related theme is evident in the brilliantly colored, “The General,” by Kevin Red Star. A figure wears a Custer-like cavalry uniform – and a tribal headdress. This piece symbolizes one of the issues facing American Indian artists: Should they draw on Indian art traditions, Western art traditions, or both?

“Contemporary Native American artists frequently admit their artistic influences to be as much non-native as they are Native,” wrote Michael Holloman, the director of the Center for Plateau Cultural Studies at the MAC, in an introductory statement for the exhibit. “They have become like their peers in literature and film, warriors battling to reclaim sovereignty of their images and image-making.”

In some pieces, the content of the work is traditional, but the medium is anything but. “Old Man Mask,” by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary, resembles the kind of carved wooden mask that the Tlingit culture is famous for. Yet this mask has a luminescent glow; it’s made of opalescent sandblasted glass with a horsehair mane.

“He’s bringing something very deeply historical into the contemporary world,” said Mitchell.

The exhibit includes two works each by R.C. Gorman and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, among the best known contemporary Indian artists in the world; a number of pieces by widely respected local artists, including George Flett and Ric Gendron; and many pieces by up-and-coming young artists, such as Clark.

Another young artist, Bently Spang, from the Northern Cheyenne tribe, created the stunning piece that greets you at the exhibit’s entrance, “Between a Rock and Hard Place.”

It resembles a curtain of rawhide strips, hanging from an old wooden railing. Slumped and fused lengths of glass hang from the rawhide strips. Rocks sit in a line on the floor below.

During one recent MAC visit, a patron walked in, took a look at this piece, said, “What is that?” and headed directly for the “Samuel Colt” exhibit nearby.

If he had bothered to study it, he might have discovered exactly what it is.

“This is a piece composed of things that came from the land the artist grew up on, on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Lame Deer, Mont.,” said Mitchell. “This is the old rail from the mission school. They picked it out of the ruins. These are homemade pieces of rawhide, from an elk he killed and provided for his family for the table. This is slumped and fused glass, made from the sand he found there.”

The rocks, too, came from the reservation.

The exhibit acknowledges the complicated cultural issues surrounding Indian art. They’ll see some beadwork, basketry and tribal dress, but usually with a twist. For instance, Joe Feddersen, an artist from the Colville Tribe, has made what looks from a distance like a traditional hide vest (“Grandfather’s Vest”). When you get closer, you see it is made almost entirely from paper, with printed paper appliqué.

“The surprise is part of its power,” said Mitchell.

Possibly the most striking piece in the exhibit is called “Canopy, Odd One,” by Marie Watt of Portland. It’s a fir beam, standing upright like a pole, carved into images of folded blankets stacked high into the air. Watt incorporates images of blankets into much of her art, because of the importance of blankets to native cultures – and non-native cultures as well.

“Blankets hang around in our lives and families – they gain meaning through use,” wrote Watt, in an artist’s statement. “My work explores social and cultural histories imbedded in commonplace objects.”

This exhibit makes a fitting prelude to the next major exhibit scheduled to occupy this particular gallery space, “Living Legacy: The American Indian Collection,” which will feature the museum’s Manning American Indian Collection, the first collection ever donated to the museum in 1916.

Meanwhile, “Tradition and Change” serves as a timely reminder that American Indian art didn’t stop evolving in 1916. It remains a potent and unpredictable cultural force.

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