Work ranging from pictorial and historical depictions to politically engaged abstractions are on display in "Between Wisdom & Knowledge," an exhibition of indigenous contemporary art.
The show at Montana Museum of Art & Culture's Paxson Gallery includes prominent Montana artists, such as Kevin Red Star (Crow), Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish), Corwin Clairmont (Salish), Jeneese Hilton (Blackfeet) and Neal Parsons (Blackfeet) alongside younger artists like Anthony Yazzie.
The title comes from the "Survival" series suite of prints that Salish artist Quick-to-See Smith donated to the MMAC's Permanent Collection. The subtitles of three of the prints set up a dichotomy: "Nature/Medicine," "Wisdom/Knowledge," and "Tribe/Community."
Curator Jeremy Canwell thought "wisdom" and "knowledge" implied different meanings — indigenous thought versus European rationalism — which provided a way of looking at the work, which combines traditional imagery or techniques with experimental styles and commentary on living in the shadow of colonialism. He pulled works from the museum's collection and donations to create a survey of contemporary work.
The show is roughly divided into sections: He said works by Kevin Red Star, Jason Clark and Woody Crumbo concern ancestry and heritage. They bring "oral history to figuration," with depictions of regalia and traditional and origin stories.
In his artist statement, Clark, a University of Montana adjunct professor and technician at Matrix Press, describes a way of thinking about the work:
"Contemporary Native art connects each artist to their times, and draws from their ancestral art, then shares these connections with the viewer. We use traditional and contemporary mediums, images and processes. These traditional elements link us to our past and our proud legacy of survival, while these contemporary elements are interpreted through an indigenous world view. These innovative creations have the ability to persuade and inspire. Contemporary Native work can focus our attention to present conditions and direction our vision to the future.
"The creation of contemporary Native art is important because it has the opportunity to dispel the many ongoing misconceptions, stereotypes and myths about our cultures and modern tribal identities. It can change those negative beliefs held by not only the mainstream society but ours as well. It can show the continuum and evolution of our native cultures."
Jay Faber and Neal Parsons use aspects of assemblage. In Faber's case, he's constructed a large-scale horse and bison skull from salvaged metal. Parsons, a painter, incorporates traditional imagery and objects (buttons, ledger art) with loose abstract expressionist textures.
Half of the gallery is an entire section devoted to the environmental devastation. For instance, Blackfeet painter Jeneese Hilton's ghostly landscape, "Forest for the Trees," a small white bison hides behind a trunk.
In her statement, Hilton writes, "My work has been influenced by my eclectic life experiences — being raised in the outdoors with all kinds of animals and having had opportunities to travel and experience other cultures outside of the United States. The animals in my paintings speak to many belief systems that sometimes collide with each other and at other times support each other. I am interested in beliefs — past and present, personal and universal — that affect the way we think (or not), the way we treat ourselves, each other, and the environment. References from history, literature, myths and religious comparisons often make their way into a painting."
Some of these environmental pieces naturally overlap with the idea of resistance, which Canwell thought was important to include. Statements on the subject are embedded and integral to many of the works throughout the show. Clark's prints comment on oil extraction in an intensely detailed woodcut monoprint, "Winona and the Big Oil Windigo." In "Measles, Mosquitoes, Mermen," a group of infected figures float aboard a canoe with threats seemingly all around them.
Clairmont comments on colonial attitudes since Lewis and Clark that are now embodied in proposed oil pipelines on reservation land in "Footprints," a print that layers maps, iconography, local sites and more. In the corner, he labeled the piece, "10,000 + years of indigenous American Indians & 200 years Lewis & Clark."
At the top of Hilton's painting, "Game," she re-created a "To Whom It May Concern" letterhead and encircling animal figures floating above a Statue of Liberty, with multiple hands grasping the torch. She's using "broken-up language trying to address in a forthright manner one's concerns, and falling back on her creative sensibility as a way to better cope," Canwell said.
In "Hold Your Injun Up High," Anthony Yazzie (Salish and Navajo) painted a traditional design in turquoise and green with blue and red lines. He disrupts the center of the canvas with swirling, foggy white brushstrokes atop which he's painted a white person's arm holding up a solid-red figurine of an Indian.
"You see these Navajo textile patterns together with this frustration he experienced being a token of people's sensibility of Native American culture," Canwell said.
Yazzie, born in 1988, explains in his wall text that the painting is a "representation of the situation I was involved with during my senior thesis art exhibit at the University of Montana. With 'Hold Your Injun Up High,' I have encountered the idea of myself as a positive representation of the population of a 'Good Injun.' The red figure is a self-portrait, the arm holding up the trophy signifies the heightened acceptance I have experienced throughout my life. This work challenges the idea of what makes a Native American a 'Good Injun.' But I have left out the idea of a 'Bad Injun' because society doesn't like to look at the failures around us."
Not all the indicators are as visible from a distance. You'll probably know Blackfeet artist Jay Laber's assemblage style from "Charging Forward," his sculpture of a warrior on horseback that sits near the parking lot for the student recreation center on campus. For his piece in this show, an untitled sculpture, he bent hubcaps into a skull and wrapped barbed wire to form the horns of a bison.
At the dome of the hubcap skull, there's the car company's logo: Plymouth.