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Knock, knockPowerful Native American art, including the gripping work of George Longfish, asks the question: Who's here?
Knock, knockPowerful Native American art, including the gripping work of George Longfish, asks the question: Who's here?

For three decades, postmodern art has explored and spit out the collective mind, in what I call the "what's there" inventory. But now that the content of humanity's past and present accumulation of things is out on the table (and up on the walls) for all to see, it is evident that among one group of artists in particular - contemporary American Indian artists - the quest for "what's there" is not nearly as important as "who's here."

Who we are, and what makes us who we are, is the question of the day. Because the identity question - personal, familial and societal - is the focus of two museum shows in Missoula, now through the third week in April, let's declare it a time to celebrate the creativity of contemporary American Indian artists.

A huge - both in importance and scale - powerfully dazzling retrospective of paintings, prints, masks and mixed media works by internationally acclaimed George Longfish (Seneca/Tuscarora) is at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.

MMAC's curatorial team has provided us with yet another outstanding exhibition. Located on the UM campus, in the PARTV Building, MMAC's Meloy and Paxson galleries are filled with large, vivid art that is nothing like anything you've seen before. Technically speaking, an artist only gets one retrospective in a lifetime, and the Longfish show is hands-down one of the most mystical, humorous and meaningful retrospectives to appear in Missoula in the last decade.

Simultaneously, downtown at the Missoula Art Museum, eight Native American artists are represented in a show titled "Native Identity in Flux: Reflections from the MAM Contemporary American Indian Art Collection."

This remarkable collection includes seldom-seen works by Fritz Scholder (Lummi) and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Flathead/Salish), both among the most collected and recognized modern artists in the country, Native or otherwise.

Both shows are open to the public, free and absolutely worthy of an afternoon - or two - no matter what your interest in art or in Native America might be. You'll see images that make up the contemporary Native American world - our shared world - from a dancing coyote paper doll showing off a humorous wardrobe for all occasions Indian; to vintage Crow warriors illuminated by holographic mylar sitting atop boxes of Valentine's Day candy; to a larger than life-sized, triple-decker hamburger garishly garnished with plastic looking condiments and stamped with a red question mark; to several renditions of shimmering blue homunculi, spirit-men standing in landscapes worthy of Castaneda's wildest dreams; to a sadly desperate crow covered with text-feathers that spell out the ludicrous "Indian Child Protection Act," which justified the removal of Indian children from homes deemed unworthy by federal agencies; to an enormous Indian Christ with a thorned crown and gigantic, glowing metallic halo painted by a quadriplegic artist using his mouth to hold the paintbrush; to a pipe-carrying dandy hipster dressed in robin-egg blue, distractedly looking abstract while sitting atop a modernist yellow cube.

There are 56 pieces total in the two shows combined, and a couple of them each take up an entire wall. One 10-foot-wide painting by Longfish is hanging in the president's office in UM's Main Hall, because it wouldn't fit through the gallery doors at MMAC.

GEORGE LONGFISH: A RETROSPECTIVE

Born in 1942 in a small town in Ontario, Canada, George Longfish was raised on the Cattaraugus (Seneca) Reservation outside of Buffalo, N.Y., where he attended the Thomas Indian Boarding School. His ancestors, the Seneca, are one of the original six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee. In 1955, the school closed and shortly before it did, Longfish left for Chicago. He was 14 years old.

In Chicago, Longfish soon found the Chicago Art Institute and legendary earthworks sculptor Robert Smithson, among other artists. At the institute, he studied painting, film and sculpture. In 1972, he received an MFA and within a year of graduation was recruited by the University of Montana to help establish a short-lived, but passionate graduate program in American Indian art. It was the first university graduate curriculum in history to target Native American students and focus specifically on Native American art.

When the UM program was terminated just a year later, in 1973, Longfish went on to the University of California-Davis, where he spent the next 30 years teaching and directing the C.N. Gorman Museum.

Longfish retired from teaching in 2003 and lives in Maine (near his ancestral home) with his wife and daughter, where he spends time painting and building a studio.

As you walk through the exhibit - which fills both the Paxson and Meloy galleries (and don't forget the 10-footer on display in the president's office) - it is interesting to note that Longfish's styles range from minimal, to op and pop, to collage/text art. Yet his touch is undeniable and identifiable. What you are seeing here are a dozen different mediums, deftly used so that the medium isn't the message. The painting qua painting, and the content therein, is the message in Longfish's work.

I've always thought the true mark of a master artist is when he or she can work in any medium, across many stylistic approaches, while achieving a final result that appears to the eye as absolutely cohesive and original. This retrospective is a supreme example of such talent.

In the Longfish retrospective, you'll find oil and acrylic painting, mixed-media prints, works that incorporate ribbons, fabric, textured papers, vintage photos and even a wooden paintbrush handle (the nose, in "Portrait of an Artist"). You'll find two (really scary) denim masks decorated with elk teeth (representing a father's pride in his family), floral beaded appliques, shotgun bullets in hand-sewn pockets, scalp locks and tiny fur tails (Thunder Stick Masks No. 1 and No. 2).

One image that is both funny and disturbing (and which you can take home on a T-shirt printed specifically for the retrospective) is "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses." Longfish projected and enlarged a digital photograph, "re-appropriated" (his word) from a Chicago advertisement, and added phrases like "How 'bout getting off of these antibiotics?" - referencing the need for healing among Native Americans.

Most recently, Longfish has been creating smaller, perfectly squared, red canvases (in a minimalist, color-field style of painting) with stenciled "Blood Quantum" numerals painted on them, his comment on the federal government's standards used to define Native American identity - standards that are often dangerously internalized by Native people to define themselves.

A personal favorite is the monumental-sized "As Above So Below." A Pawnee chief painted in black and white sits next to a cheeseburger, amidst an exploding-with-color-and-text field of scratched through gestural strokes of grass. Next to him is a giant burger with "1997" printed below it.

According to Longfish, the year 1997 represents the date that Brazil became the world's largest exporter of fast-food beef - hence, further destroying the rainforest with grazing in order to feed hamburgers to Americans. All around our Ponca warrior are words - "Natural Body," "Spiritual Body," "Truth, Honor, Dignity, Integrity," "Lies, Lies, Lies" and an upside-down "Water," representing the manner in which traditional values have been turned upside-down by colonization.

The painting is bold, big, beautiful and deep.

George Longfish is a living American treasure. His traveling retrospective was originated by the Montana Museum of Art and Culture. It is scheduled to go to Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, to venues in Great Falls and Helena, as well as the University of South Dakota and the University of Northern Iowa.

A stunning catalog, "George Longfish: A Retrospective," with text by Kate Morris and a forward by Manuela Well-Off-Man (curator of art at MMAC), will be available for purchase online and at MMAC's galleries April 3. It is funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Montana Arts Council.

NATIVE IDENTITY IN FLUX

One would have to be civically half-dead to be unaware that the Missoula Art Museum recently underwent a major renovation and expansion (to the tune of $5.315 million, $550,000 of that raised for a grass-roots endowment).

But what isn't common knowledge yet is that MAM has dedicated an entire section of the new museum to the exhibition of contemporary American Indian art: the Lynda M. Frost Gallery, on the third floor of the building's new wing.

The Frost Gallery opened with a one-woman show by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, who endowed the museum with many works she'd collected by other Native American artists, as well as a massive collection of her own works on paper, for which she's well known internationally.

"In the mid l990s," Quick-to-See told me, "I worked very hard to begin the contemporary Native collection at MAM. Per capita, Montana has some of the best Indian artists in all of Indian Country. I felt this was a way to bring long overdue attention to them."

However, when the MAM board began to consider dedicating a wing specifically to contemporary American Indian art, Quick-to-See "was totally against being assigned to a room with a nameplate over the door. I wrote a pleading letter to the museum's board of directors asking that they please not do this."

MAM (hesitantly, according to director Laura Millin) went ahead with their decision to dedicate the wing to Native art "for the foreseeable future." Quick-to-See tells the tale of her first encounter with the gallery - which, she believes, is the only museum gallery in the entire country dedicated solely to contemporary American Indian art.

"I was not prepared for my first viewing of the Linda M. Frost Gallery," Quick-to-See tells us. "It absolutely took my breath away, left me in utter shock, with tears rolling down my cheeks. I was stunned at the beauty, not only of the interior and exterior of this jewel box of a museum, but at this enormous space devoted to contemporary Native art. (The gallery's donor) Marshall Delano's generosity is beyond belief. We owe him deepest thanks."

I must add that we, as Montanans, owe Jaune Quick-to-See Smith an equally deep thanks for remembering her homeland, and for being so generous in her support of fellow artists. Such generosity is not always the case in the world of art.

Go see the Native Identity in Flux show. There are 24 breathtaking works on view from the MAM permanent collection. Many of them rather magically echo the Longfish show - in text and style, content and shape. Such is the moccasin telegraph of art. It is good to know that at least one portion of our population is on the same page with one another, when it comes to the "who's here" question.

This exhibition features Neal Ambrose Smith, Melissa Bob, Corky Clairmont, Jason Elliot Clark, Ernie Pepion, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Fritz Scholder and Susan Stewart. They are all good - but especially check out the new boy on the block, Jason Elliot Clark.

It could be said, after seeing both of these amazing shows, that there is an art explosion happening in Montana, right before our very eyes. This is a combustion comparable to the art boom that took place in the late '80s and early '90s in New Mexico. Also similar to the grassroots art revolution that began in Santa Fe and Taos, it is undeniable that the contemporary works by American Indian artists are at the very foundation of this Montana renaissance.

The shows at MAM and MMAC are guaranteed to knock your socks off, make you laugh and maybe even make you think about your own identity. What a break from the materialistic, commercialized stream of media we all have become used to.


The exhibit

"George Longfish: A Retrospective," is currently on view in the Meloy and Paxson galleries in the PARTV Building on the University of Montana campus. The exhibit continues through April 20. On Tuesday, April 3, at 4:15 p.m., Longfish will present a slide lecture in the UM Social Sciences Building, Room 352. An artist's reception will take place on Thursday, April 5, from 5-7 p.m. in UM's PARTV Building. Longfish will present a gallery talk at 6 p.m. on the night of the reception. For more information or gallery hours, call 243-2019.

Simone Ellis lives in Missoula. She is author of "Santa Fe Art, 1993-2006" (Random House/Crescent/JG Press), a book on Southwestern painting, and was the head art critic for 10 years at The New Mexican in Santa Fe. She writes a monthly art column for the Missoulian. You can reach her at saynitso@bresnan.net.

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