KAWS: WHAT PARTY – Brooklyn Museum
A major concern of museums in a post pandemic world is how to bring back visitors in large enough numbers to recoup the income losses of 2020. What will people want to see after months of lockdowns, restrictions on public activities, and all their personal stressors?
Brooklyn Museum is betting they’ll want COMPANION and CHUM, the two most famous creations of KAWS, graffiti artist/designer/entrepreneur, whose twenty-five-year career is on display in KAWS: WHAT PARTY. And why not? These and other characters in his repertoire are globally known, thanks to his brilliant grasp of design appropriation and marketing, combined with an art practice that spans everything from drawing to the latest technologies. His record-breaking sales in the auction market, famous collectors, and a fan base that cherishes irony, nostalgia, and limited production runs (including items for sale at the exhibit gift shop), ensure the museum a blockbuster show, international social media attention, and a reputation as an institution that attracts an audience that wants contemporary art on their terms, not the art world’s.
The exhibit shows a true understanding of the artist’s fans, providing plenty of space to pose next to their favorite pieces, engage with a new AR app, or play a game of KAWS related trivia questions. Beginning with the ‘WHAT PARTY’ sculpture of CHUM, placed at the entrance (and showing the title of the show in large letters behind him), a visitor will be able to document the show, posting content and hashtags as they go, creating or enhancing a reputation as a person who is at the latest, coolest event in New York.
But what exactly are they recording? The pop culture references, artist’s skill, the rarity of the limited-run products in the exhibit, or the prices the artworks command?
As a matter of fact, the main subject of conversation at the press preview was the valuation of the works and hardly any comments on the pieces themselves. After all, if you don’t understand a piece of art, you can definitely appreciate how much it cost at auction or in a gallery setting. Unfortunately, this form of assessment doesn’t work very well when trying to grasp the visual or intellectual appeal of an object and also diminishes the effort of the artist to express ideas through an image. It’s not essential to like an artwork but it is essential to listen to what an artist is trying to say, whether they express it badly or well.
The exhibition gives a minimal amount of background for KAWS career: starting as a graffiti artist tagging and painting over advertising posters on phone booths and billboards, then realizing that commerce was a viable method to gain attention for his art. Criticism of capitalism and societal tropes by KAWS and other graffiti/street artists later became used as a knowing wink from brands eager to connect to a new audience. Luxury fashion brands embraced the subversive and illegal nature of graffiti in public places, borrowing that renegade veneer to make their conventional goods appear modern to consumers.
KAWS took these ideas and pointed them right back at popular culture: first copying well known cartoon forms but altering their faces to distort intent and meaning, then developing characters of his own but retaining elements that point back to the original sources. Everything was done with an eye towards making product (for his own market or collaborations with companies), while continuing to work in traditional forms of drawing, painting, and sculpture.
This has allowed an illusion of accessibility with limited quantities: products with his designs aren’t individually made by him but anyone has a reasonably good chance of buying them, knowing the objects have a finite manufacturing time. For those who can afford the ‘fine’ artwork of paintings or sculpture, the knowledge they have a special item that is as famous for its price as for KAWS collector base, makes for a sense of exclusivity that must be equal to what the royal families of 16th century Europe felt when looking in their treasuries or at their palace walls.
But as always, there is more to an artwork than its cost. Standing in front of the canvases and sculptures, you begin to understand why KAWS is so successful: his images are a mind-meld of pop culture, irony, and childhood memory, all with a simple emotional vocabulary that translates easily between the small screen of a phone and an 18-foot sculpture. As any graphic or product designer will tell you, it’s an extraordinarily difficult job to create a form that works in so many scale variations while retaining a high level of appeal to the viewer but KAWS has managed to do just that.
The show opens with KAWS early graffiti drawings and his painted-over advertising billboard pictures. You can see him working out letterforms and scale, smushing down and rounding the shapes until they achieve a rolling flow across the surface. This is graffiti 101, modulating and building up your tag so viewers can recognize it instantly on a wall or train car. In addition to tagging, KAWS started to develop characters based on established cartoon figures, using some of these early ideas on advertising posters and billboards around New York City.
From there visitors move on to the early 2000s: works of his package painting series featuring fragmented images of his KIMPSONS people, with the interplay of collectable toy culture, pop art references, and mass production being lampooned and exploited in equal measures. Nearby are several large canvases using KIMPSONS and KURFS characters in the generic settings of the original sources such as a garden or living room. These acrylic paintings have the sharp outlines used by late 20th century animated cartoons but are also strangely lacking in detail or expression. Part of that is due to KAWS’ skull and crossbones heads with trademark x placed where each face’s eyes would be, but some of it is the scale of the paintings themselves. Animated cartoon characters are as big as the screen they’re on, to see them oversized and motionless is jarring. The famous THE KAWS ALBUM is here too, with its multitude of KIMPSONS characters in the same poses as The Yellow Album, The Simpsons (which is a parody image of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles).
There are also recent large sculpture works of COMPANION in various states of being from a split anatomical model to a seated version hiding his face with his hands and a version of CHUM, towering at over 7 feet. Materials ranging from fiberglass to bronze, smoothly coated in matte or glossy paint, create a technically flawless surface akin to a plastic toy newly removed from its packaging. From there, visitors move to KAWS’ collaborations with brands and manufacturers, showing various logos, sketches, and objects from the last few years. The adaptation of his style or characters to figurines, clothes, and furniture is well thought out, without losing the forms’ essence.
The second to last room of the show briefly introduces some abstract drawings and canvases before reverting to the tried and true of the COMPANION figure used in site specific installations. This final space is impressive, using screens at least 20 feet tall to show a continuous video stream of these in situ productions. It’s clear that the installations were popular events at museums and art fairs around the world with thousands of online posts and selfies to prove it, and of course, limited merchandise for sale. The room also has several large sculptures in wood and smaller works in aluminum, all of COMPANION expressing different moods through body posture.
In the end, the show doesn’t fully explain the appeal of KAWS’ work or even make much of an argument as to why his fans are so committed to his aesthetic. His characters have no facial expression, any emotion ascribed to them is based on posture alone. CHUM and COMPANION are consistent shapes in standard art class figure poses, only their scale and surroundings change. Viewer interpretation gives meaning to the forms, but the figures don’t give anything in return. The superficiality of this emotional expression does speak to recent times, when people are at one remove from each other, with masks hiding faces and screens altering real time listening/response behaviors but there should be more to the work than that. KAWS genius lies in creating a demand for a form and characters that have no discernable meaning or emotions other than what a viewer imposes. His success in the fields of design and manufacturing are impressive and a template for future creators. But it will take a different show to explain why this art has meaning and made such an impact on collecting and selling in the contemporary art world.
On view February 26 – September 5, 2021
Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Hours: Wed – Thur: 11-6, Fri – Sat: 11-8, Sun: 11-6, Admission (Prices reflect general admission plus KAWS: What Party): Adults: $25, Seniors: $16, Persons with disabilities (caregivers free of charge): $16, Students (16 years and up, with valid ID): $16, Ages 4 to 14: $10, Ages 3 and under: Free, Members: Free. Click here for tickets
PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT THE FOLLOWING HEALTH PROTOCOLS WILL BE OBSERVED IN THE MUSEUM: There will be NO coat or large bag check services available, face masks are required for all visitors aged 4 (four) years and older, visitors are asked to keep 6 (six) feet apart from other people at all times while in the museum (unless visitors are part of the same household), group size maximum 6 people (or 1 adult to 5 children ratio group size) and hand sanitizer stations are available for use throughout the galleries. Staff will be regularly sanitizing common areas and the museum has a newly upgraded air circulation system in place.
Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America – New Museum
In Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, the New Museum presents an exhibit uniquely suited to the current era and arts scene. As a rule, a subject as complicated and emotionally challenging as Black citizens, communities, and artists responding to racism/violence, especially when those actions have been openly encouraged/enacted by current and former political leaders, is not something an arts institution is well equipped to handle. There are so many variables to consider: Does the artist or their work inspire conversation or actions among the public? Is this a subject better suited to a different locale such as a school, gallery, or symposium? Will there be protests and if there are, will it damage the reputation of the institution?
On the other hand, the record of arts organizations in the United States to display, discuss, or learn from any minority group has been exceptionally poor, so any museum willing to hold a show on current events is already demonstrating a level of interest and sensitivity unusual to the national or even regional trends. This isn’t to say that after an exhibit such as Grief and Grievance this museum will continue exploring new ways to discuss art from non-White or non-Western reference points or even that other institutions will expand their own curatorial visions but while it’s here, it should be used as a new standard to begin the art institutional change so desperately needed to keep culture relevant to people’s lives.
The exhibition brings together 37 artists whose pieces often addresses the political and social issues in the United States, from the civil rights protests of the 1960s to present day topics of police brutality and the openly racist and unjust treatment of Black people by social and legal institutions. Conceived by curator Okwui Enwezor (who died before completing the exhibit) and brought to completion by an advisory team consisting of artist Glenn Ligon, curators Naomi Beckwith and Mark Nash, and Massimilano Gioni, Edith Neeson Artistic Director, New Museum, Grief and Grievance was formed from a series of public talks given at the Alain LeRoy Locke Lectures event at Harvard University, with the core theme as the intersection of Black mourning and white nationalism in American life.
The works are arranged over three floors, the lobby area, side galleries, and the façade of the museum. Unusually for a thematic show, no artwork is placed to be a showstopping moment; although some pieces are imposing or cover a large area, every item is given a context and space for the visitor to look and reflect. There is no single starting point for the show either, but each floor has a basic focal point of an image that references a historical moment of political/social engagement linked to community mourning and remembrance. Works like ‘Birmingham, 1964’ by Jack Whitten, and ‘Freedom Now, Number 1 (1963-64)’ by Daniel LaRue Johnson refer to acts of violence against Black people as they peacefully protested for their civil rights, while ‘Procession, 1986’ by Jean-Michel Basquiat seems to be more focused on the process of grieving itself, but all three pieces are simultaneously of their time while speaking across the generations.
Another feature of this show is the attention given to a wide variety of media. Painting, sculpture, collage, found objects, photography, and video art are all given equal weight here, proving that a powerful statement can be made accessible in any format. Styles range from figurative to abstract to conceptual, producing a far more realistic view of living artists’ current methods of expression.
The mix of older and younger artists is carefully balanced, with the selection of pieces reflecting how each group choses to protest and bear witness to their lifetime’s historic events. Howardena Pindell’s ‘Autobiography: Water (Ancestors/Middle Passage/Family Ghosts), 1988’ references historical facts of slavery combined with personal memories of segregation while Kevin Beasley’s ‘Strange Fruit (Pair 1), 2015’, located in the same room, links the 1930s anti-lynching song to a pair of sneakers hanging from sound speakers, wires, and ropes, making a connection between the violence done to young Black men now and in the past.
Other examples in the long history of physical and psychological cruelty to Black Americans can be seen in ‘Book of Hours, 2020’ and ‘Book of Hours (ICBM’s for HCBU’s), 2020’ two collections of works on paper by Kara Walker. These images are graphic and powerful, showing that the traumas of the past are permanently fresh. Melvin Edwards’ ‘Lynch Fragments’ series allow the viewer’s imagination to understand that any object can be an instrument of brutality and therefore to be feared.
Bias and prejudice at the hands of law enforcement can be seen in Henry Taylor’s ‘Untitled, 2020’ showing a Black boy’s head looking towards a record player with the phrase ‘Every Brotha Has A Record’ while behind him stands a white man, arms crossed, dressed like an English barrister. The play of words means either the viewer thinks of Black musicians or Black people being arrested or incarcerated. The issue of police targeting appears in Carrie Mae Weems’ work with her ‘All the Boys (Blocked 1), 2016’ pairing a photograph of a young man in a hoodie, face covered by a large rectangle with a text panel featuring descriptions invoking a police report.
Mourning and memorializing are the center of Kerry James Marshall’s large canvas banners, showing figures placed in domestic interiors, with portraits of civil rights leaders and historical figures prominently displayed. Another form of memorial is Terry Adkins’ ‘Ars Memoria Alexandria, 2012’, an x-ray photograph of a memory jug, an item often used as a commemorative grave marker in Southern Black communities. The jug would contain small objects owned by the deceased although this image shows items selected by the artist.
Other pieces, such as the photography portraits of Dawoud Bey and LaToya Ruby Frazier, show the strength and resolution it takes to be a Black American. Bey’s ‘The Birmingham Project’ is a series of photographs that are a tribute to the victims of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Arranged in pairs, one image is a child the same age as one of the dead, and the other picture is of an adult 50 years or older, the age that victim would have been if they had survived. Frazier’s ‘The Notion of Family’ (2002-2011) documents her family and neighborhood without sentimentality or artifice.
Abstract works from Mark Bradford and Julie Mehretu produce an emotional response through careful layering of color and shape. Conceptual pieces from Glenn Ligon, Garrett Bradley, Charles Gaines, Arthur Jaffa, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Julia Phillips all call for attention to be paid to inequity, inequality, aggression, and brutality that is directed upon the Black body and mind.
One of the most sobering pieces in the show is also one of the simplest: ‘Entryways, 2019’ by Diamond Stingily, feature a baseball bat leaning against a door with locks. The notes for the work refer to the artist’s grandmother, who had this arrangement in her home, to protect herself from potential intruders. This history, combined with the objects, rewrites a stereotypical narrative about Black women as passive victims to acknowledge them as strong protectors of self and family. But it also calls to mind the fragility of a door against external forces, when people like Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, and Kenneth Chamberlain are killed in their own homes, where they thought they were free from harm.
In the end, we must ask ourselves if the contents of this show will make a difference, in or out of the art world. We can’t know who will see the exhibit, who may feel affirmed or vindicated. And we don’t know who will begin the long process towards understanding the past and present, acknowledging ignorance and complicity within themselves? Will the perpetrators of violence and white supremacy in the United States walk into the New Museum, read the background notes to the works, stand in front of the art, and let the images sink into their minds? How can there be empathy, understanding, and change unless those who hate, degenerate and lie to themselves that groups than their own are merely ‘things’ not people like themselves are confronted with the damage and destruction they have caused?
Curator Okwui Enwezor, his team and the artists have spoken. Who will listen?
On view February 17 – June 6, 2021
New Museum, 235 Bowery, Hours: Wed: 12-6, Thur: 12-9, Fri – Sun: 12-6, Admission: Adults: $18, Seniors: $15, Persons with disabilities (caregivers free of charge): $15, Students: $12, Members: Free, Children aged 15-18: Free, Children aged 14 and under: Free when accompanied by an adult. On Thursday evenings from 7pm-9pm, admission is pay what you wish (but a suggested minimum is $2). Time and date-specific tickets are available online for visits 2 weeks from time of purchase. Click here for tickets
PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT THE FOLLOWING HEALTH PROTOCOLS WILL BE OBSERVED IN THE MUSEUM: Temperature checks will be done at the entrance to the museum for all visitors, there will be NO coat or large bag check services available, face masks are required for all visitors aged 4 (four) years and older, visitors are asked to keep 6 (six) feet apart from other people at all times while in the museum (unless visitors are part of the same household), and hand sanitizer stations are available for use throughout the galleries. Staff will be regularly sanitizing common areas and the museum has a newly upgraded air circulation system in place.
Brian Clarke: The Art of Light – Museum of Arts and Design
One of the great mysteries of stained glass, whether in a secular or ecclesiastical setting, is its ability to take the natural phenomena of sunlight moving across a designed translucent object containing color and texture, and create a unique moment of transcendence to open the spectator’s mind to a world beyond their own. In Brian Clarke: The Art of Light, the internationally known British artist presents works from the last two decades that expand upon that miracle through the innovative use of stained glass and its associated materials for a wide range of projects.
The exhibition begins on the 4th floor, showing some of Clarke’s latest work as well as ephemera from his career and life. He first gained attention in the 1970s with his paintings and works in stained glass for religious buildings, later becoming known for everything from architectural collaborations to set design. In the 1980s and 90s, Clarke was based in New York, designing furniture, creating stained glass, and painting. Later on, he returned to Britain, continuing to be involved in various design and art endeavors, cementing a reputation for imaginative work in countless forms of media.
The seventeen free-standing folding screens, consisting of four panels each, cover most of the exhibit area (there are also two screens in the lobby and four on the 5th floor). These objects are all about mastery of technique, combined with groundbreaking methods of manufacturing the glass as well as controlling the color content. One of the most exciting aspects of this is how Clarke has released design from the construction methods of previous centuries. Gone are the individual pieces bound and connected by T bars or lead: in their place color and form are united within the glass structure, creating a seamless expanse for light to flow through. Other examples showcase revolutionary methods using screen printing, photographic imagery, multi-lamination, and two colors within a single sheet of glass. Often working with the architectural glass and mosaic firm of Franz Mayer of Munich, Clarke’s vision embraces the chemistry and physics aspects of the material, finding new ways to control and expand glass’ capabilities using state-of-the-art equipment developed for these creations.
The choice of a folding screen framework to hold the stained glass is a masterstroke in changing viewers’ perspective and opinions. The associations with religious architecture are removed, allowing the material to be seen as an artistic and technical marvel, just as Clarke does. The implicit and actual movement that a folding screen possesses in a space allows the stained glass to follow the light wherever it goes instead of being a passive object animated by an external element. It is a modern answer to an ancient craft.
The exhibition continues on the 5th floor with a series of drawings, works using lead, and some stained glass pieces. The lighting in this area is subdued compared to the earlier gallery area, creating an area for contemplation and reflection. Two large walls are dedicated to drawings for his ‘Night Orchid’ series: first using a black paper and a white pencil to outline and develop an understanding of the flower’s shape from different angles, later adding blended blocks of watercolor that build definition with or without outlines. The effect sometimes flattens the petal formation to the point of becoming decorative but then the eye catches a subtle change of tone in the color, bringing the image back to a near three-dimensional view.
On another wall the stained glass connection with lead is not forgotten, with several panels showing mosaic glass fully embedded in the lead, still glowing faintly with saturated color, even though light only rests on top of the material, not passing through it.
The lead on lead objects seem to be both drawing and sculpture, an interesting approach to a material that is considered more utilitarian than an art medium. The delicacy of the shapes as they twist and fragment across a slab of lead look like drawing, even when lines spell out words, but the base that the silvery thin lines rest upon is a metal, something that is associated with the sculpture format. Several pieces show images of skulls at different angles, some fully formed, others given the bare suggestion of an outline. When the light and spectator change position, the dark and light grey of the piece becomes animated with flickering tonalities, as though lit by candles. Other works memorialize Clarke’s mother, using words from her shopping lists on one side of the lead panel while sharing space with photographic images of her hands folded over each other and a basic outline in lead with her hands at a different angle. Using these mundane relics of a daily life now gone remind the viewer that it’s often the small moments of memory that cause the most sorrow for the living.
As engrossing as this brief exhibition is, there is a lack of detail about the construction and composition of the glass that frustrates. Visitors can see the folding screen panels are constructed in unusual ways but don’t understand just why this is so important. A simple video demonstration of various glass making methods would go a long way to help appreciate the brilliant audacity of Clarke’s ideas and the technical advances of the craftspeople at Franz Mayer of Munich.
In addition, it feels as though the social aspect of Clarke’s life is emphasized a little too much. Every well-known artist has famous friends, it comes with the territory. But exhibitions in museums are supposed to be about the art. While friends, prominent or not, shape and define each other, in the end it’s just an artist, standing in front of a blank space, asking themselves what happens next. And when the artist is as obsessed with the imagination and craft of art as Brian Clarke is – well, that’s all a visitor needs to have for the chance to achieve that moment of transcendental beauty that will change a life forever.
On view September 17, 2020 – April 21, 2021
Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, Hours: Thursday – Sun: 11-7, Admission (reserve timed ticket on website): General: $18, Seniors (65 years old and older): $14, Students (with ID): $12, Members: Free, Children (under 18 years old): Free, People with disabilities (click here for details): Free
Arte del mar: Artistic Exchange in the Caribbean – Metropolitan Museum of Art
In Arte del mar: Artistic Exchange in the Caribbean, The Met showcases 40 objects associated with a lesser known group of Native peoples called the Taíno. This indigenous population based in the Caribbean, mostly within the area of the northern Lesser Antilles, Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and The Bahamas were the first peoples encountered by Christopher Columbus on his 1492 voyage. The Taíno (who don’t have the dramatic story or massive territory of the Aztecs or Mayans) used the oral tradition to record and remember their history, religion, and lineage, something that was lost after the subjugation by the Spanish invaders. Everything known about them today is either from contemporary European accounts or archeological discoveries.
What is available in this show is sparse: ceremonial stone axes, pendants of stone and gold, stone zemís in a triangular shape (sculptures referencing the land or possibly religious spirits), a wooden zemí in a human shape (representing an ancestor or deity), vessels, a metate (a kind of table used to grind corn) and some rare wood ceremonial seats for political or religious leaders. There was a great deal of trade and political negotiation among various tribes on the islands and the coast of Central America before Europeans arrived, building a complex linkage of different societies, customs, and goals. The exhibit would have been far more interesting if it had discussed this aspect in more detail, instead of merely showing objects from different areas. The bulk of the items come from sites in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, but Costa Rica, Panama and other nations are also represented. Strangely enough, there is nothing from Cuba or Haiti, countries well known for their Taíno settlements.
One detail in the exhibition labels seems to hint at a far more intriguing possibility to examine artistic and cultural exchange. In discussing a rare example of figurative design on a pottery vessel, the description mentions that it is the Tonosí style (an area not far from the Panamanian coast) , and that archeologists have learned to identify many Native people subcultures within the larger group designation just from their pottery. It would have been interesting to learn where this and the other pottery objects were found, along with the latest scholarship on aspects of social and political networks in the region.
Another problem, and perhaps the only failure of the show, is the inclusion of Wifredo Lam’s Rumblings of the Earth as an example of a modern Caribbean artist incorporating Taíno elements into their work. Lam was known for using a self-invented set of images representing Afro-Cuban religious concepts/spirits of Santaría and Vodou, melding them with Cubist and Surrealist visual ideas. It’s true that these religions are influenced by some Taíno practices but details on this are not exact, to say the least. A far better choice would have been the Dominican artist Ramón Oviedo’s Caonabo, Primer Peso Político de Ameríca, which directly connects itself to the Taíno through its title naming one of the tribal leaders. The image shows Caonabo as a prisoner with his hands tied, surrounded by horses and soldiers carrying lances. The emotional frenzy surrounding the captive reminds viewers of the violence and fear brought by European conquest and is a far more accurate telling of the region’s and the Taínos’ history, as well as the influence on modern artists.
On view December 16, 2019 – June 27, 2021
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, Hours: Thurs – Fri: 12-7, Sat – Mon: 10-5 (reserve timed ticket on website). Admission: Out of state visitors: Adults: $25, Seniors: $17, Students not from NY, NJ, or CT: $12, Children under 12 years: Free, Members: Free. These admission tickets are good for three consecutive days and permit entry to The Met Breuer, The Met, and The Met Cloisters.
NYS residents (must show proof, see website for details): Pay what you wish, Students from NY, NJ, CT (must show current student id): Pay what you wish. These admission tickets are good for same day only and permit entry to The Met Breuer, The Met, and The Met Cloisters.
Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting – National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center, New York City
For centuries, the American public has been used to thinking of Native arts as either part of the ethnographic record of the original peoples of the United States or as craft to be marketed as an expression of a tribe’s traditions. Anything different would not be considered truly Native by these arbitrary guidelines, and in fact, would not have been accepted as an authentic work. By the 20th century, US government programs for the arts were designed to keep indigenous aesthetics in a sterile environment for so-called authenticity’s sake, with a subtext of outsiders controlling the narrative of conquered peoples. The idea that anyone of Native descent would want to make fine art using the ideas and forms of modern theories while still referencing the touchstones of their background was very difficult for educators and others to accept. It wasn’t until after World War II and the educational opportunities provided by the G I Bill, that Native artists could afford to learn and work outside of the government-run arts schools. This newfound freedom led to dynamic works that could be anything from pure abstraction to biting social satire, where being an American Indian was simply one part of a person’s identity. Today’s artists, using their background and professional training, continue to expand and redefine Native art for the 21st century, adding to the creative spirit of the United States. The exhibit Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting, curated by David Penney, associate director of museum research and scholarship, and curators Kathleen Ash-Milby, Ann McMullen, Paul Chaat Smith and Rebecca Trautmann, trace this little known aspect of American art history using works from the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) collection.
Starting with the idea of ‘Grand Ambitions’, the show makes the overarching statement that modern Native paintings encompass a multitude of styles, themes, and subject matter, making them impossible to categorize. Using works from the 1950’s to the present, the only theme is freedom of expression, whether that is content or technique. Some fine examples include Blanket by James Lavadour, Walking to the Next Bar by Fritz Scholder, Trade Canoe: Adrift by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Deer Dancer for Hyacinth by Rick Bartow. Each of these works has a connection to ideas or concerns within Native communities, but expresses the artist’s feelings in a contemporary way, reaching out to a wider audience. Other paintings have no overt reference to Native themes, such as the beautifully balanced Spatial Whorl by Dick West, a triumph of Modernist Abstraction; and Reflexive Contemplation (wants-needs) by Duane Slick, with its delicate layers of paint over two faint silhouettes.
Following this introduction, the exhibition goes back in time, to explore the history of Native artists within the context of US government control of their education and restrictions on acceptable working techniques. A small passageway labelled ‘Training Ground: Oklahoma’ and ‘Training Ground: New Mexico’ showcases examples of drawings made with gouache, watercolor and tempera done by Native students attending art schools in Oklahoma and New Mexico. These idealized images are done in a relatively strict illustration style, with little modelling or perspective, and set the accepted standard of Native art practices for decades. By doing this, US government schools kept these students and educators from joining the national conversation regarding art theory and practice, all but ensuring the only market these artists could sell in was the limited one of ethnographic images.
Further on in the show, three sections show the rapid changes in Native art in the post-war era, thanks to benefits provided by the G I Bill as well as new ideas in federal policy and philanthropic activity. Given the freedom to attend colleges and universities with modern art courses and training, students embraced current methods to express age-old concerns and subjects, with many later becoming educators to the new generation. The ‘Reclaiming the Abstract’ segment shows American Indian artists beginning to move non-representational shapes from traditional areas of weaving and pottery onto the canvas, playing with positive/negative space, breaking down form, and using colors to influence mood and meaning. Three examples of this style, which is still very popular, are shown by Helen Hardin, Joe Hilario Herrera and Pablita Velarde.
After this area, the ‘Cosmopolitan’ section displays mid-20th and early 21st century work that advances further into modern abstraction, keeping pace with the current trends of American art. No 2 by George Morrison, with its strong gestural brushwork and assertive palette, is a classic example of abstract expressionism equal to any artist of that genre. In Homage to Chief Joseph (Chief Joseph #1) by Kay WalkingStick, the artist subtly links the old with the new, using the outline shape of an animal hide to contain and display her masterful painting technique. Contemporary abstraction is ably represented in Standing Water by Emmi Whitehorse, with its nuanced tones and floating shapes.
Finally, the ‘Indian Pop’ area gives viewers the heritage/modern mashup that is Native life, with tribal customs and rituals observed in a contemporary setting, as in Dance Break by Harry Fonseca with its four characters wearing ceremonial masks but dressed in jeans and high-tops. No longer viewed as primitive, sentimental, or naïve, these subjects are simply people engaging in their multi-faceted culture, the same as anyone else might do.
To put an exhibit of fine art in a museum known more for ethnographic content is a bold leap of imagination by the curators and the NMAI. Making the case for this little known aspect of US history and doing it in one of the art capitals of the world, sends a powerful message to Native and non-Native alike that this work has validity. However, the force of this argument is weakened by several inconsistencies in the presentation, something that would not have happened in an art institution setting.
The main problem with this exhibition is the uneven amount of information regarding the artists, historical context, and the paintings themselves. Some paintings have explanatory text linking the work to contemporary issues or artistic ideas, others have nothing. As an example, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa by Mateo Romero has no information attached to it. The title refers to either an ethnic group or a subgroup of Tanoan languages; either way, there should be something explaining which meaning the artist intended. The image itself is neutral enough that the viewer is left wondering how to interpret the scene. On the other hand, historical information for the early years of Native peoples’ artistic training is well expressed and encourages visitors to think about the methods and reasoning behind them.
The layout of the exhibit is also somewhat confusing. Oddly enough, the conclusion of the theme ‘stretching the canvas’ begins its narrative with late 20th century and early 21st century works, then switches to 20th century examples to illustrate US government approved art educational methods for Native people, influence of philanthropic organizations, and gaining opportunities to learn fine art techniques based on current art trends. Topics are linked to a timeline, as in abstraction and the 1950s, but the paintings in those areas are not consistently of the era referenced. Abstract ideas have changed radically in the last 60-plus years and the differences are very noticeable between period pieces and works from the last 10 years.
Using only paintings from NMAI’s own collection is a powerful way to draw attention to the lack of interest in modern and contemporary fine art from Native artists. Unfortunately for the organization, not all these pieces are the best available, making the show a little weaker than if they decided to include outside collections. (We’re assuming, correctly or not, that few mainstream institutions have much work from these artists. Indeed, the current rehanging of MoMA’s galleries don’t seem to have a single Native artist’s work on display, something that should be considered in future curatorial decisions. The Met has at least begun to address the issue with its new series The Great Hall Commission, currently showcasing mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) by Kent Monkman.) Admittedly by keeping the focus on their own holdings, the NMAI is making several points about the makers, the paintings, and the outside world’s view/acceptance of these works, not to mention the sensitive subject of funding purchases of art for the nation. However, the selection on view has a much better gender balance than the majority of group shows in NYC: out of the 37 paintings, 9 are by women, but by percentages, women are about 25% of the total participants. Although not parity, it’s clear that the curators have made a conscious effort to bring forward names that deserve to be better known. Given the national and international audience that visits the NMAI, it’s more than possible this collection may influence future exhibitions in unlikely places, although it may take years. It will be interesting to see if public interest, along with curators and scholars, can help break down the art world’s resistance to including artists of Native descent in permanent and special exhibit galleries.
On view November 16, 2019 – Fall 2020
National Museum of the American Indian New York, Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, One Bowling Green, Hours: Fri – Wed: 10-5, Thur: 10-8, Admission: Free