Monday, January 28, 2008

Migrations: New Directions in Native American Art (Part Two by McNeil)

Three Part Series:
1. Intro & Vision for Migrations
2. Jurors & Contributing Authors
3. Migrations Artists

Part Two, Jurors & Contributing Authors


An eclectic panel of jurors were brought in; it seemed to me that a common thread that wove this very diverse group of jurors together was that they're all quite the art intellectuals who have been advocating for art that transcends the ordinary; that art is vital to humanity and that they have all dedicated their lives and careers towards helping to ensure that our museums, art organizations, artists and the public hold these sensibilities to be true. I know that it is not easy to do this, because there is always a strong contingent that would prefer to see the status quo remain the same, which is the antithesis of what art should embody, but that's another story. These are my own opinions and observations; I don't think any of the jurors actually said the above themselves. They are who inspired me to submit art to this particular jury; it was clear that this Migrations project strove to do something very special and I wanted to be a part of it, so I crossed my fingers, said my holy smackers and sent in my stuff (these are technical art terms by the way).

Marjorie Devon, Director, of the Tamarind Institute seemed like a natural choice as a juror, especially for this project, what with all of her years of experience working with a very diverse group of international artists. She had a shrewd sensibility of the uniqueness that each artist could bring to the project.

Siri Engberg
is the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
They described their internal long-range plan as the desire to create "a pioneering 21st-century multidisciplinary arts center with audience engagement and experiential learning at its core." It is known for its major exhibitions of 20th-century art, for its presentation of vanguard music, dance, theater, film, and video, and for its innovative education programs. The Walker is definitely on my list of places to visit; what can I say? It looks different and thought provoking; I remember seeing äda web years ago and am glad to see that it's still as vibrant as ever.

Jaune-Quick-to-See Smith, artist and independent curator, writer, advocate and critic was among this stellar group brought in to jury this Migrations project. Jaune has been one of the most dynamic activists promoting Indigenous artists in recent memory. She is selfless in this respect and donates her time to many projects. She is a frequent artist collaborator at the Tamarind Art Institute in Albuquerque.

Truman Lowe is an artist, scholar, advocate and Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC among other things. Truman is a true Indigenous intellectual and is a Professor of Art at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including the very prestigious Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Art. His art is in numerous major museum collections around the world.

Deborah Wye is none other than the Chief Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (click on this link to the Museum of Modern Art's site of Audio Archives and scroll down to find a lot of audio programs, including many featuring Wye). Needless to say, MOMA is one of the premier arts institutions in the world. I heard that she had the walls of the remodeled print galleries painted gray "so that the prints with their white margins pop off the wall." Wye has been the Chief Curator since 1996 and is the caretaker of what many critics consider to be among the most comprehensive collections of contemporary prints in the world.

Contributing Authors

Lucy Lippard is quite the hip art intellectual, critic, author, activist, feminist and theorist who wrote an insightful chapter titled "Moving Days." I really value Lucy because she's influenced how people re-think the status quo, not only in the art world, but how we think about what's happening in our American culture. Not to be overly simplistic, but I think that once we get too smug about our scholarship, it needs to be given a decent rattling to see how sound our presumptions hold up. Sometimes this translates to putting forth a paradigm that other scholars cannot see, which is part of what makes her more unique than your run of the mill art expert in the world of academia.

With her Moving Days essay, Lippard brought her laser vision to bear on the cultural landscape that we're all constantly trying to figure out. I liked how she opened her essay with a quote from Oscar Howe's 1958 letter to the Philbrook Museum's Annual, upon being rejected because his work was too modern and abstract to be "Indian." It inferred that the art world wasn't always ready for what various artists have to present with their art, and how museums commonly play the role of gatekeepers for how we define art, especially when it crosses cultural borders. She mentioned the students and faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (where I would humbly add that I helped add substance to their Photography area as a faculty in the 1990's).

I would completely agree that it is critical that Indigenous artists know precisely who our early master artists were and that we have a long history of artists who have struggled to make a place for ourselves in the art world and that mediocrity was never all right; that in addition to everything else, we continue to break new ground with our art. I like her succinct writing style. She asks, "Where and when did contemporary native 'Modernism' begin?" Good question, especially when it is framed by her assertion that "the crucial difference between the Studio School (Dorothy Dunn's) and the IAIA is that the latter was founded and run by Native artists. One of the realities of being a faculty member at the IAIA was that we valued the Indigenous knowledge, or epistemology that students brought with them and we used the type of knowledge that they had ingrained within themselves as momentum for their own art-making practices. It meant that other non-western philosophies were a part of how we nurtured our students, including honoring the ancient spiritual beliefs and world-views that they brought with them. It meant that we had to be more sensitive to the non-academic elements that art schools usually reject, because in order to nurture our students, we had to be open to their entire identity, not just sections of it.

Lucy was also shrewd enough to recognize the implied conflict between the terms "traditional and contemporary." In my opinion, the terms traditional and contemporary are sometimes perceived to be polarized beasts on opposite sides of a compass and artists had to choose one, because that is the nature of things. Of course, we indigenous artists know that is completely ridiculous; I just finished writing an essay about this for our own Northwest Coast cultural organization, the "Sealaska Heritage Institute," in Juneau, Alaska, due to be published this summer.

Regarding history, one of the best phrases in the book was where Lucy quoted the Mi'kmaq video artist Mike McDonald, "I once heard an elder say that the great crime in this land was not that the natives had their language and culture beaten out of them in boarding schools- the great crime was that the people who came here did not adopt the culture of the land." It is this sensitivity that makes Lucy's research so relevant; she gets right to the heart of the issue without flinching or shirking away. Thank you Lucy, you have the sincere appreciation of generations of Indigenous artists.

Jo Ortel is an Associate Professor at Beloit College and the Chair of their Department of Art and Art History and author whose area of expertise is nineteenth and twentieth-century and contemporary art, including feminist and Postcolonial art and theory. Her chapter titled, "Multiple Migrations: (E)merging Imagery," discussed issues that are of significance to both artists and scholars, especially the ongoing debate about the issue of meaning in art.

Jo opens her essay by reflecting about the
2004 Whitney Biennial and how a critic proclaimed, "the decade of socially and politically engaged art was over." That was quite the stentorian proclamation. Maybe even some kind of a weird junior manifesto?

Jo pointed out that "she argued- rightly I think- that the art selected for inclusion in the 2004 show largely retreated from the single-minded obsession with the world's ills." Jo added, "In their choices for 2004, the curators overstated the resurgence of escapism in contemporary art, in my opinion, and underrepresented art addressing issues of cultural identity. Although many artists have turned away in recent years from engagement with the world, identity politics and political and social concerns remain urgent, compelling subjects of investigation."

I'm sure there was a large multitude of artists who breathed a collective sigh of relief upon reading the above. I can't imagine a more stultifying, or mind-numbing act than to have a critic proclaim that making art that has relevance to our times is passé, like a frivolous fashion had passed. This discounts the intellectual aspect of being an artist, to say nothing of a human being making art about what they're passionate about. Do we hear the same argument about authors? "Oh, sorry, you can't write about life anymore. It's way too intense for our people."

While surfing an entire litany of banal television programs recently, the pop celebrity of the hour, Paris Hilton was asked what she thought of her book being on the Wall Street Journal's bestseller list. Her answer? "What's the Wall Street Journal?" I got the feeling that back in 2004 Paris may have been a gallery darling at the Whitney (had she shown up) for her intellectual prowess. I apologize, Americans may sometimes epitomize political naiveté, but not
that bad; I take the Paris thing back. I think. Maybe. It just seems to me that ignorance and indifference is a bad combination, especially for an artist, so I heartily second Jo's point of view and thank her for writing about it in the book, because it was so relevant to the year the Migrations art was being created.

In my opinion it was a smart strategy to have the various authors assigned specific tasks, such as researching both the Tamarind and the Crow's Shadow Art Institute. It gave a well-rounded view of the prime ingredients that made the exhibition distinctive. You'll have to ask each artist whether Jo's interpretations of his or her art was accurate. All I know is that her take on my own art made me laugh, which meant that it was pretty much right on target. I thought that her interview was thoughtful and she did her homework about what informs the art before she talked to us.

Jo and Lucy have reaffirmed my belief that artists need critics and historians and that at their best, they're able to add momentum to what artists do. On the other hand, some historians and critics do just the opposite, so I guess us artists really need a healthy skepticism about their profession, leave it to them and go about making our art (Oops, I guess that means I shouldn't be writing this). On the other hand, there is a convincing argument being made by various Indigenous artists that in order for our history to be truly accurate, it needs to be written by Indigenous intellectuals and writers; that a powerful sense of sovereignty is required as a key ingredient for our truths to emerge. At any rate, I am sincerely grateful for their contributions to the book; thank you, Gunalchéesh.

Kathleen Howe is the Director of the Pomona College Museum of Art and professor of Art History. I've got to fess up and mention that I studied with her while an MFA student at the University of New Mexico. I asked to take an independent study with her and she was gracious enough to approve it (which included research on the French photographer Felix Bonfils, but that's another story). Her essay "A Quiet Commitment: Tamarind and Native American Artists" was very informative and taught me a lot of valuable information. Her essay shared a lot of the Tamarind's history, including that they came from LA to UNM in 1970 and their commitment to pedagogy with their Master Printer program. Kathleen put forth the argument that then Director Clinton Adams encountered a very large and diverse arts community in New Mexico (that included many Hispanic and Native American artists) that necessitated a shift towards a more diverse printmaking workshop and that it was a welcome part of their new strategy.

Kathleen described
Fritz Scholder (who was then teaching at the IAIA) as one of the early Native artists that Adams approached to make lithographs at the Tamarind. In a four-month span, they made an astounding twenty-one lithographs. Kathleen described how other Native artists followed- T.C. Cannon, Patrick Swazo Hinds, Dan Namingha, R.C. Gorman and that Jaune Quick-To-See Smith started making lithographs at the Tamarind in 1979. She mentions the 1986 transition of directors between Adams and Devon. She describes the influx of new Indigenous exhibitions on the national scene that emerged in the 1980's and who was generally doing what and where.

This was a partial survey of contemporary Indigenous art, and valuable because you don't see them that often. Kathleen reminded us that "From its inception, Migrations was intended to redress the lack of critical appraisal..." The plan was "to invite the critics to visit the presses while the artists were in residence to foster knowledge of their work and to encourage the exchange of ideas." I think that it's really great that Kathleen was able to write this chapter, given her own history of working at the UNM Museum and knowing a lot of the people she wrote about, or at least being able to interview people who knew what was going on back then.

Gerald McMaster is a First Nations artist from the Siksika Nation in Alberta who is an artist, activist, scholar, curator and arts administrator. His art, which is satirical, helped inspire my own art at times. McMaster created the first national Indian and Inuit art gallery at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and was appointed to the dual roles of Deputy Assistant Director for Cultural Resources and Director’s Special Assistant for Mall Exhibitions at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. These two key roles had him centrally placed as a major influence on Indigenous art and artists in both Canada and the US.

His essay, "
Crow's Shadow: Art and Community" describes the background information that led to its formation on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation near Pendleton, Oregon and how James Lavadour (Walla Walla) led the way in order to make it a reality. Gerald wrote, "This is the story of Crow's Shadow Institute of the Arts and James Lavadour's ambitious vision to establish a community resource that would support Native art in all its dimensions." He writes a brief background history of the Umatilla Reservation; who lives there and the political realities they had to deal with, including a powerful sense of sovereignty that drove all else. He tells of how Lavadour worked with their Education Director Woesha Hampson (Ho-Chunk, and my sister-in law's sister) with curriculum development and how, "like many people on the reservation, Lavadour had a strong social conscience and an idealistic commitment to community... he hoped to use art to effect social change on the reservation."

Lavadour was used to working with other Indigenous artists with a similar sense of sovereign status and community, and that serving their own people was just as important as being an artist; that it was critical to prioritize service to the Indigenous community. One could make the argument that this service to their own communities is what adds a level of reality to their own art. They're able to avoid the stereotypical and starry-eyed notions of Indigenous identity and use an exciting new visual vocabulary that is sometimes unique unto themselves. He believed that the Crow's Shadow "could act as a community based arts organization that could attract resources and also be a conduit for Native artists into the mainstream art world."

Gerald wrote about how Frank Janzen, their Tamarind-trained master printer came to work at the Crow's Shadow and helped with not only getting the presses set up, but also with programming and day to day operations, along with his key role of collaborating with artists with printing their hand-made lithographs. Three of the Migrations artists made their lithograph editions with Frank- Steven Deo, Ryan Lee Smith, and myself. I had heard from Marie Watt how outstanding it was to work with Frank, so I asked the Tamarind if I could print at the Crow's Shadow. Besides, I thought it would be very cool to make art on the Rez for two weeks.

What made Frank special was he is an artist himself and not simply a print technician, which brought a special artist's sensibility to the project. Same with the other Tamarind-trained printers, especially Bill
Lagattuta who actually trained many of the Tamarind master printers. Frank had to do a lot of creative problem solving with me because I worked primarily with digital media. Our challenge was to translate my digital images into the aluminum plates that were used to print each of the five lithograph layers. We had to figure out the proper exposure for the original acetate negatives and in turn, the exposure for the plates from the digitally based negatives. Frank had an uncanny knack for getting them right on target even though it was a newer aspect of lithography.

One of my own favorite aspects of the process was playing and experimenting with the various inks for the prints themselves. It was exhilarating to see the myriad of possibilities for the prints, including the colors, opacities and how they interact and cause subtle changes when layered. I liked how one is often forced to be fearless with all of our creative decisions and how sometimes it was like rolling the dice to see what happens, which inferred that a peculiar kind of "art luck" was involved. All I can say is that if this was true, Frank was my big-time good luck guy. In reality, luck had little to do with anything. Our creative power essentially drove everything, coupled with a highly skilled application of technical prowess. Thank you Frank and James. You are both the heart and soul of the Crow's Shadow.

Gerald's essay gave a unique insider's view of what made the Crow's Shadow earn a singular distinction in the world of contemporary art, which serves to inform a critical aspect of contemporary Indigenous art. This act is in complete harmony with Gerald's long history of service to the Indigenous community, and we're lucky to have him as such a selfless contributor. I've read the book twice already, not to mention just looking at the images. I am honored to have played a role in it's existence and that my own art and sensibilities are floating around in the mix somewhere, especially when one considers that the people involved with Migrations embraced the philosophy that a contemporary art community is vital to its own evolution and health.

Part Three, "Migrations Artists" willl be posted soon.

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