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Without Reservation
Today's Native American artists employ a wide range of contemporary approaches and media to explore identity.
Feature by Scott Andrews


Allan Houser, 'Cerrillos,' 1993, Bronze, edition of 6, 111' x 146 1/2' x 60' Photo: courtesy Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix

When the arts collective Postcommodity was invited by Arizona State University Art Museum to participate in the exhibition "Defining Sustainability" last fall, one aspect of the project seemed especially noteworthy. Tasked with representing Native American artists at the museum's Ceramics Research Center, painter and Postcommodity member Steven Yazzie explained, "Yes we're Indians, but no, we don't make pots."

The collective, whose members also include composer and noise artist Raven Chacon, poet Kade L. Twist and filmmaker Nathan Young, was formed in 2007 and has quickly executed a dozen terse site-specific actions to brilliant effect. They are part of the latest generation of American Indian artists working, for the most part, in media derived from European tradition, and using modern and post-modern tropes in their vocabulary. Their piece Do You Remember When?, an interactive sound installation built into a hole cut in the floor of the ASU Art Museum, aptly depicts the mixed themes of loss and survival, accompanied by the dark humor of necessity that is often associated with American Indian contemporary art.

Any artist-cut hole in a gallery floor inevitably begs comparison to Gordon Matta-Clark's seminal "building cuts" of the 1970s. But while Matta-Clark often made his interventions outside the law, cutting holes with a chain saw through the rooms of abandoned buildings in the Bronx for surreptitious photographs, Postcommodity has instead followed the rules to buffo-comic effect. Prior to making their cuts in the gallery floor, the group petitioned for a series of university and building department permits, so as to not "undermine the foundation" of the museum. They then cut their hole, and presented the removed concrete slab alongside the excavation as a trophy. Nearby in the gallery, shards of broken slab from the cutting entitled "Collateral Damage" were displayed with geographic grid coordinates as mock archeology.

But here, perhaps, the joke stops. An element of traditional Indian art was added to the mix. A manipulated audio recording of a Pee Posh social dance, music of the Gila River Indians who are descended from the inhabitants of the land on which the university is built, was introduced via a closed circuit audio loop. Though the metaphors of cultural and temporal conflict could easily be lost on a casual visitor, Indians who attended the show's opening voiced appreciation at hearing their songs sounding in the gallery, seeing Native earth revealed from under the gallery floor. "But perhaps," says Postcommodity member Twist, "they were also surprised to be recognized by a contemporary art museum, instead of being relegated, as usual, to an ethnography exhibit."

As with other young artists in their twenties and thirties, today's American Indians are more likely than their predecessors to have the advantages--and biases--of a university art education, and to aspire to participate in the critical discourse of the global art world. However, though self-description by ethnicity is considered passe by many artists of other groups, few American Indian artists working today consider themselves 'Post-Indian' in the sense that some African American artists are referred to as 'Post-Black.' Why are Native artists so drawn to issues of identity and concern for community approval of their art? "Perhaps," says Institute of American Indian Arts Director Patsy Phillips, "it is because our numbers are so small."

Supporting Native artists in the imaginative land called Indian Country is a new type of institution that has morphed the ethnographic studies of American Indians to include indigenous viewpoints and contemporary art. Prominent in showcasing American Indian artists, both traditional and contemporary, are the Heard Museum in Phoenix; the Autry National Center's sister museums in Los Angeles, which include the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of the American West and the Institute for the Study of the American West; and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Outside the obvious magnets like New York City, innovations in indigenous art-making cluster near these hot spots today.

For Heard Museum director Letitia Chambers, contemporary art is a natural fit. "German museums held some of the finest examples of Pre-Columbian Native art in the early 20th century," she explains. "The beginning of Modern art in Europe was influenced by Native art, and in return, Native artists have returned the favor."

Early Native artists who adopted a modernist stance include Allan Houser of Arizona and George Morrison from Minnesota. Houser, born Allan Haozous in 1914, was a member of the Warm Springs Chiricahua Apache tribe, and became known as one of the foremost American Indian sculptors by taking influences from Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Jean Arp and interpreting them to depict Apache life. Morrison, an Ojibwe born on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, studied at the Art Students League in New York City during 1940s. His work moved towards abstraction when he became acquainted with Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock a decade later. Friends with Louise Nevelson and mentored by Clyfford Still, Morrison was both a sculptor and painter, but preferred his landscapes that hauntingly picture the horizon line of Lake Superior, where he lived near Grand Portage until his death in 2000. Morrison did not actively identify himself as Indian, but has been claimed by contemporary Native artists as a forbearer.

Native visual art has used abstraction for thousands of years in the surface designs of pottery and the patterns of basketry and textiles, but abstract painting remains a minority position among American Indian contemporary artists, who are more likely to be influenced by dominant art world trends. Notable Native abstractionists whose careers began in the 1980s when both Houser and Morrison were yet alive, and who continue to be shown with the freshest American Indian artists working today, include Emmi Whitehorse, who is Navajo, and Mario Martinez. Whitehorse's atmospheric painting maintains a limited palette, referring to contrasts in light to create attention, and is reminiscent of Cy Twombly in her use of scattered drawing marks. Martinez' emphasis is instead on complex patterning and risky composition. Raised in Penjamo in Scottsdale, the smallest of the Yaqui settlements in Arizona, Martinez attended the San Francisco Art Institute and now lives in New York. Like Morrison, his paintings eschew overt political narrative and are highly personal, dwelling on formal concerns and emotion. The Yaqui practice a synchretic Christianity that maintains their indigenous worldview, and prohibits use of sacred objects outside of ceremonies. Martinez maintains that this refusal to commodify culture has led him to his preference for abstraction. Not strictly non-objective, his painting is instead modeled from natural shapes, with echoes of plant forms that layer illusion of infinite depth.

While modernist stylings, such as abstract expressionism, have maintained their mythic status in American art, in Native America, other trends have been at work. The cliche may be that American Indian art is political whenever it is contemporary, and in that there is some truth. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that indigenous political action uses art as a weapon.

Following the civil rights movements of the 1950s and '60s, and influenced by Warhol's Pop explosion, American Indian artists such as Fritz Scholder, T.C. Cannon, Harry Fonseca and Bob Haozous (the eldest son of Allan Houser) adopted popular styles far removed from the mandarin tendencies of Ab-Ex, and along with others including American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Jimmie Durham, performance artist James Luna, symbolists Jaune Quick-To-See Smith and HOCK E AYE VI Edgar Heap of Birds, painter Kay Walkingstick and collagist George Longfish, the artistic front of the Native Rights movement opened in earnest with a series of group shows and a proselytizing fervor. The tactics were irony, engagement and a liberal use of text, as in Quick-To-See Smith's States' Names Map, which presents a revised map of the USA, with only names derived from indigenous words visible. Alex Ross of LewAllen Galleries observes, the composition "draws much of its pertinence and poignancy from the inevitable mental contrast of her depiction with the maps used in United States' elementary schools, where children are given few if any visual cues as to the origins of the states--each of whose names they are inevitably trained to remember." By 1992 it all seemed to have come to a head. The "Submuloc Show/Columbus Wohs," curated by Jaune Quick-To-See Smith at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, a Native response to the 500-year anniversary of Columbus, tilted indigenous art to the left, and the group show became the preferred mode of exhibition for contemporary American Indian artists.

In the front range of Colorado, the Denver Art Museum has become known for its extravagant architecture, embodied in dual buildings designed by Gio Ponti and Daniel Libeskind. In 2005, a link to the early contemporary group shows was added when Wheel, a major monumental sculpture by HOCK E AYE VI Edgar Heap of Birds was installed in front of the museum, which has an extensive collection of historic and 20th-century Native art. Born in Kansas and living in Oklahoma, Heap of Birds is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes who once lived in the Rockies, and is known for his text work on site-specific public signage and a refusal to accept revisionist history of Native peoples. Modeled after the traditional Medicine Wheel of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming, Wheel consists of ten rather than the traditional twelve tree-shaped pillars so as to be an artwork instead of a sacred form. Made of porcelain enamel on steel, the ten columns are each constructed in the Y-shape of a tree cut just above forking branches, to create a feeling of stability. Heap of Birds spent over five years living with the structures in his studio. Because of this long process, the work is not static and is used by Native peoples in Colorado as a meeting place, as well as being viewed as an expression of contemporary art.

Among the American Indian artists who have entered the contemporary dialogue in the last decade are a number from the pueblos north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Ceramicist Virgil Ortiz from Cochiti Pueblo is also a fashion designer who has collaborated with prominent figures like Donna Karan. Rose B. Simpson, the daughter of noted Santa Clara Pueblo sculptor Roxanne Swentzell, burst onto the scene when she was featured with Nora Naranjo-Morse and her daughter Eliza at "Lucky Number 7," the 2008 SITE Santa Fe Biennial curated by Lance Fung. The Autry's Museum of the American West will feature Nora Naranjo-Morse in "Home Lands: How Women Made the West," opening April 16.

One of the youngest new artists is Jason Garcia, also of Santa Clara Pueblo. Working in ceramics, Garcia makes subtle comment on the juxtapositions of modern life and pueblo traditions. Joe Baker, who was Lloyd Kiva New Curator of Fine Art at the Heard Museum, describes him as "full of mirth," and unlike much of the pop influenced work by American Indian artists of a generation ago, his art seems bemused, not angry. Diego Romero, though twenty years older, shares his lightness somewhat. Both artists appear in "Pop! Popular Culture in American Indian Art," opening April 16 at the Heard Museum. Born in Berkeley CA, Romero studied at UCLA; he came to pottery in college, outside the tradition at Cochiti Pueblo, his father's origin. His "Neo-Mimbres" pots recall archaic historical designs, but feature his own pop-Cochiti characters, the Chongo Brothers, who are depicted riding in cars, getting drunk and just hanging out. Due to the artist's quick hand and obvious respect for the traditional pottery from which he models, the work seems jovial rather than transgressive. Santa Fe is home to the Institute of American Indian Arts and Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, and is widely renowned for the Santa Fe Indian Market, held each August. The pressure to make a year's income during Market week is intense for many craft-based Indian artists--if you visit, don't be surprised to meet someone on the sidewalk sporting a t-shirt that reads "real artists donÕt starve." Yet there is still crossover with the fine art world: both Virgil Ortiz and Diego Romero, though they have gallery affiliation and exposure in museums, have also exhibited at Indian Market.

IAIA, which began as a boarding school, is Native run for Native peoples. The Vision Project, headed by photographer and IAIA educator William R. Wilson, was recently made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation. A book chronicling sixty contemporary American Indian artists written by fifteen Native scholars will begin the project's intended goal of creating a critical language and terminology to discuss indigenous art. A journal and online presence is to follow. Wilson received a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant this year for his recent installation work, Auto Immune Response. Wilson considers American Indians' heightened susceptibility to diseases as making them, he says, "A canary in the coal mine for environmental poisoning." The installation pictures the artist garbed in a gasmask while constructing a greenhouse shaped like the traditional Navajo dwelling, the hogan.

Also aligned with Santa Fe is Osage painter Norman Akers, who is from Oklahoma and now resides in Lawrence, Kansas, but was a strong influence at the IAIA school for many years. Akers' paintings construct overlays of personal symbols onto his memories of the Oklahoma landscape. The Osage, he recounts, formally abandoned traditional cosmology a hundred years ago when they assimilated into Christianity. His paintings are a personal effort to recuperate tribal memory. Another hot spot for Indian arts is the Northwest. Joe Feddersen, along with expressionist painters Rick Bartow and James Lavadour, and weaver and poet Gail Tremblay, has exhibited widely in the region and nationally for two decades. Both a master printer and a glass artist, Feddersen, whose work is currently featured in the exhibit "Vital Signs" at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University, and who opens a new exhibition March 30 at Froelick Gallery in Portland, Oregon, made his name utilizing Plateau and Great Basin textile designs in ceramics. He now inserts mundane shapes like cell phone towers, tire track patterns and even the silhouette of a stealth bomber into his print and glass works. Playing on viewers' expectations to see something Northwest, something Indian, in his work, Feddersen reveals Native patternmaking as not exotic, but faithful to the quotidian world, whether filled with salmon or airplanes.

Los Angeles is generally considered to be outside Indian Country, but nearby Palm Springs is half located on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation. The local museum began life as a natural history museum with a collection of Western memorabilia and Cahuilla historic and pre-contact artifacts. Over the years, the museum received donations of works by canonical Modern and contemporary artists; five years ago it became the Palm Springs Art Museum. To celebrate the museum's not unusual but wayward history, curator Katherine Hough has assembled an open plan exhibition. On the main level of the museum, sculptures by Allan Houser and Arlo Namingha and paintings by Fritz Scholder and Dan Namingha, exemplify the progressive twist on indigenous themes.

Jeffrey Gibson, who was born in Colorado and now works in New York City, opens a new show April 1 at Arin Contemporary Art in Laguna Beach. Although Gibson does not position himself primarily as an American Indian artist, an indigenous reading of his work is there, if you look. His paintings are crazed with color and darkness, graffitiesque clouds appear to threaten an abstracted Fritz Lang metropolis. Jimmie Durham, who has been described by the Belgian curator Bart de Baere as being "European of Cherokee descent," remarks in his essay "Our Miles Davis," that Gibson "seems to place himself exactly at the center of contemporary art. Kind of in the way that James Luna advised Native American artists to do twenty years ago-- he does this without nervousness about whether or not his work is 'Indian' enough or if he is 'authentic' enough. Yet his solidarity and sense of identity are strong."

If there is a dominant trend in Native contemporary art, it isn't defined by style, media, or message, but by where the artists are exhibiting. As young artists take their work "off the res" into mainstream galleries, they are proving that they are not limited to making American Indian contemporary art, but are instead contemporary American Indians making art. It's a subtle difference, but a significant one.


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