The big exhibit currently at the Durango Arts Center pulls together wildly disparate artworks. “Exploration Beyond Tradition” is an unusual group show that makes its own sense – if you give it some time.
More than a year ago, Curator Michael Billie broached then Exhibits Director Mary Puller about an invitational focused on Native American artists. Billie, a Navajo artist based in Farmington, had secured a multiyear grant from the Navajo Artists Technology Innovation and Vision Enterprise to pull together works by indigenous artists in the region. The show is on display at DAC now through June 17, and it’s an eye-opener.
Like many group shows, even those with a theme, “Beyond Tradition” appears to be a collection of unrelated works. But if you look through the lens of contemporary, not traditional, art, it makes sense. A dozen artists may or may not use traditional media – basketry, beadwork or sand painting. They may or may not incorporate Native American imagery. But here, they stretch all kinds of boundaries and probe contemporary issues with old and new means.
Gloria Emerson, a well-regarded Navajo artist and writer, educated at the University of Denver and Harvard, may be the most accessible and the most satirical artist in the group. Emerson deliberately draws from the Western canon and reinterprets artists as disparate as Picasso and Caravaggio. She also employs a Cubist vocabulary, so her works are multi-layered.
“At Trail’s End” has Mickey Mouse riding a dying horse in a Western landscape. It’s a double-edged satire using pop culture imagery to comment on Western decline. She’s also manipulated Picasso’s famous 1937 mural, “Guernica.” In two small-scale paintings, Emerson compares the desecration of Native tribes to the destruction of a Spanish village by the Nazis – through, at minimum, a double lens.
Billie’s assemblages combine traditional Native bundles of rawhide and hair affixed over colorful encaustic surfaces. Variations on themes that reference ancestors and sacred ceremonies, his works seem to combine deeply personal experience with a modern presentation via abstract expressionism and collage.
Emmi Whitehorse’s exuberant, non-objective paintings rise more directly out of the explosion of pure abstraction in the last century. “Tide Pool” is a beautiful, large painting full of color, light and floating geometric shapes. What Wassily Kandinsky started more than a century ago by freely associating emotion with abstract exploration has unleashed many artists, including Whitehorse, to explore experience in elegant, nonrepresentational terms.
The sleeper in the show may be “The Vanishing Race,” a pristine sand painting by Eugene B. Joe. It’s a carefully crafted profile of a traditional Native American man. The head is isolated on a plain background that supports a conventional, patterned border. The medium is traditional with a history seeped in sacred ceremonies. So why is this beautifully crafted, seemingly conventional work “beyond tradition?”
Joe, whose Native American name is Baatsoslanii, has given us a twist with his provocative title. Borrowed from many works of art and literature by white society, “The Vanishing Race” may be tongue-in-cheek, especially given Joe’s chosen media.
Titles matter, so do methods and materials. So, when you view this remarkable exhibition, quietly observe and give the titles a chance to expand your experience.
This exhibition calls into question our expectations of indigenous art. Every work challenges an assumption or two about the world of art in general and the practice of contemporary Native Americans.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.