Native Art Now! Developments in Contemporary Native American Art Since 1992.
Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art Indianapolis, Indiana
November 11, 2017-January 28, 2018
Native Art Now! Developments in Contemporary Native American Art Since 1992 ambitiously and successfully positioned Native art as a force within contemporary art. The 39 works were created by Native American and First Nations artists from the United States and Canada: some well-known, some mid-career, some quite young--but all current or former Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellows. The use of "Now!" in the title stressed the very contemporary look of the exhibition, which included many installation-format and mixed-media works. Conceptualizing change in contemporary Native art as "developments" emphasized the expansiveness and fluidity of this production. In concept and artwork selection Native Art Now!, curated by the Eiteljorg's Jennifer Cumplo McNutt, was evocative of the growing trend of major contemporary exhibitions of indigenous art. (1) What makes this contemporary art Native is the artists themselves, their family histories and lived experiences, rather than any shared stylistic or material characteristics.
The exhibition occupied the lower-level temporary gallery of the museum (fig. 1). The space was dimly lit, providing some solemnity in an otherwise modern, white-cube space. The Eiteljorg Fellowship of Contemporary Art has been awarded to numerous artists over the past 20 years, creating the potential for a sprawling encyclopedic exhibition, using many works to demonstrate the disparate career trajectories of fellows. Instead, Native Art Now! was restrained in limiting each artist to one series or one work and thoughtful in its inclusion of ample background information on the works and artists in text labels.
Indigenizing gestures were abundant in the exhibition. The introductory text began with the statement, "More Native contemporary artists are receiving the recognition they deserve, their contributions to contemporary art are less marginalized after years of challenging the art world to critically acknowledge their work." The Fellowship was created in part to close the gap in this marginalization, yet it is still necessary as relatively few Native artists are shown in major exhibitions. Most works presented here were paired with explanatory panels and statements by the artists about their work--effectively making them a presence in the show. Creating presence was also achieved through framed artist photographs and biographies, though somewhat less successfully. The format of these wooden-framed biographies, in rows of six to eight with sepia-toned artist headshots to the left and text to the right, seemed rather outmoded compared to the expansive nature of the artwork. Due to the size of each work, some biographies were located quite far from the artist's contribution, creating potential confusion for viewers. Separating these biographies into individual panels placed near the artworks would have allowed for presence in a more streamlined fashion.
The works themselves were well positioned, beginning with Anima (In-Between Worlds series) (2012). This is a digital, bust-length self-portrait of one of the youngest artists included, Meryl McMaster (born 1988). Covered in white makeup and butterflies, she stands in the bright whiteness of what appears to be a snowy field. The ethereal work is visually striking and meaningful, as McMaster uses "in-betweenness" to evoke her ethnic background, which is Plains Cree and Blackfoot as well as Dutch and English. The work served as a useful introduction to this exhibition of contemporary art addressing Native themes and identity.
McMaster's work also served to disrupt the general format of three-dimensional works placed in the center of the gallery and two-dimensional works along the peripheral walls (fig. 2). The openness of the space enabled the creation of dramatic sightlines from the entry and exit points of the space. Behind the McMaster piece, Bonnie Devine's (Ojibwa, born 1952) paper and graphite Canoe (2003) hovered a foot above the ground and was flanked by three works of bones and hair wrapped in acrylic polymer by Sonya Kelliher-Combs (Inupiaq/ Athabascan, born 1969). The series, titled Remnant, is striking in its tactility, preserving markers of human and animal life. In Remnant (Wing) (2016) (fig. 3), the wing seems to float in space, appearing at once as a glossy abstracted painting and natural-history specimen.
Art made by women was well represented and among the most evocative in the exhibition. In the left center of the gallery, C. Max Stevens' (Seminole/Muscogee, born 1951) hoop-skirted assemblages, Three Graces (2004), were raised on a pedestal across from Shelly Niro's (Bay of Quinte Mohawk, born 1954) installation, Unbury My Heart (2000). In both works, people--particularly Native people--seem to be missing in the dress-like sculptures of Stevens and Niro's empty landscapes. Wendy Red Star's (Crow, 1981) set of embellished cloaks, titled Fancy Shawl Project, (2009) also fit this theme of absent yet evoked people. Red Star completed this project when she left her Crow reservation to pursue an arts education. The Fancy Shawl Project pays loving homage to the particularities of "Rez" life, meaning lifestyles on American Indian Reservations. Each of the five shawls included was brightly colored and vibrant, enlivening the everyday subjects of old cars, government houses, sweat lodges, basketball courts, and ownerless dogs with traces of regalia.
Among the most striking two-dimensional works was James Lavadour's (Walla Walla, born 1951) Naming Tanager (2001) (fig. 4). Lavadour was one of the most established artists in the exhibition and his massive oil on wood painting stood out for its dynamic take on landscape and its otherworldliness. Placed along the far wall near the center of the gallery, it was visible from the entrance, appearing photographic at a distance and painterly up close. In an accompanying quote, Lavadour described landscape as "a great experience," and the multi-panel painting drew the eye to each specific panel, yielding an effect that was both vast and abbreviated.
Themes of temporality were important to the exhibition. Most works include a reference to historical or contemporary life and an engagement with the past and present. The smart and sardonic work of Jaune Quick-To-See Smith (Flathead, born 1940) was the most overtly political. Her Paper Dolls for A Post Columbian World with Ensembles Contributed by the U.S. Government (1991) (fig. 5) addresses the spread of disease to Native communities and abuses of Native children by white religious officials in a series of wooden-framed graphic paper figures. The work has been included in many exhibitions beyond the Eiteljorg's, for its trickster quality: what seems like a dress-up doll game is actually a commentary on the physical and psychological harm caused by assimilation. A similar kind of institutional critique was tackled in part by an installation by Nick Galanin (Tlingit/Aleut, 1979). I Think It Goes Like This? (2012) is composed of wooden sculptures made in Indonesia but modeled on Alaskan Native sculptures and sold cheaply to tourists, undercutting the potential profit of traditional Alaskan Native carvers.
The catalogue for Native Art Now! is an ambitious and well-composed pedagogical tool. (2) Featuring articles by well-known curators and artists of Native American art, the text is organized by medium with a repeated emphasis on variety within the field. The 386-page book is surprising given the relatively modest size of the exhibition, yet the two worked together to suggest the expansiveness of contemporary Native art. Essays cover early examples of Native artists working in these contemporary modes. In addition to the exhibition itself, an hour-long film, Native Art Now!, was released at the same time. (3) Available online through PBS, the film allows viewers who didn't visit the exhibit to learn about the field of contemporary Native art from practitioners, artists from the exhibition, curators, and collectors.
Native Art Now! demonstrated growth, rather than linear developments: art practices, here, branch out like a network of loosely connected vines. The practices of the Native artists in this show can sometimes be traced to older artists of their same cultures, but just as often relate to larger trends in contemporary art. Placed in this context, being a Native artist now is no longer a marginalized identity, but rather an expansive one. The highest goal of this work is to imagine a time when an award such as the Eiteljorg Fellowship is no longer necessary, when exceptional Native artists' work is simply included in mainstream contemporary art exhibitions.
University of Pittsburgh
(1.) One example of many would be Sakahan: International Indigenous Art, held at the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa from May 17 to September 2, 2013 and was curated by Greg A. Hill, Candice Hopkins, and Christine Lalonde.
(2.) Veronica Passalacqua and Kate Morris, eds., Native Art Now! Developments in Contemporary Native American Art Since 1992 (Indianapolis: Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, 2017).
(3.) Native Art Now!, directed by Judi Border (Indianapolis: Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, 2017).
Caption: Figure 1, opposite. Installation view of Native Art Now! at the Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana, November 11, 2017--January 28, 2018. (Photo: courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis)
Caption: Figure 2., left Installation view of Native Art Now! at the Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana, November 11, 2017--January 28, 2018. (Photo: courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis)
Caption: Figure 3, above. Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Remnant (Wing), 2016, goosewing, stretched walrus stomach dipped in acrylic polymer, 24 x 18 in. (61 x 45.7 cm). (Photo: courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis)
Caption: Figure 4. James Lavadour, Naming Tanager, 2001, oil on wood, 72 x 96 in. (182.9 x 243.8 cm). (Photo: courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis)
Caption: Figure 5, right. Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Paper Dolls for A Post Columbian World with Ensembles Contributed by the U.S. Government, 1991, watercolor, pencil and Xerox on paper, each sheet 11 x 17 in. (27.9 x 43.2 cm). (Photo: courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis)
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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