Vantage Point Review
The current exhibit, Vantage Point, at the National Museum of the American Indian displays work by 25 contemporary Native American artists ranging a spectrum of media from drawing and painting to installation and video. The framework for the exhibit is meant to be organized into Personal Memory and Identity, History and the Contemporary Urban Experience, Landscape and Place, and Cultural Memory and Persistence, yet one of the first things I noticed as I made my way through the show was how these categories all blurred into one broad history lesson which made the subtly different labels unnecessary. Perhaps having an educational agenda for an “art” show is acceptable when understanding that this museum’s primary mission is to educate about and preserve American Indian culture. However, except for the common thread that all the work included in the exhibit was made by American Indians, most of it would not be thought of as meaningful contemporary artwork in any other venue other than that which is dedicated to the historical preservation of their culture, and while this museum is the perfect place to draw attention to the historical as well as current injustices brought upon American Indians, I think only a few of the works presented can stand on artistic merit outside of this context.
For instance, there are some abstract paintings in the show by Native Americans such as Mario Martinez, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, and Margarete Bagshaw. Shubert gave us a ‘pretty picture’ called Medicine Wheel-Nebula-Glass Bottom Boat. It has some beautiful colors with some flowery shapes and sparkles that I can imagine would look very good above someone’s couch. I think I saw something like it at a craft fair once. Then there is Bagshaw’s painting, Sky Rise Dreams. It is a well laid out geometric abstract painting with muted colors combined with a mix of play on perspective and patterns. Drawing from the title and the subject matter, Bagshaw clearly intends to visually describe the rise of cities, roads, and our general concrete world as it pertains to the essential theft of her ancestors’ land and abuse of the earth. While I don’t wish to be insensitive to the intended message, I would have enjoyed this painting more if it were untitled and in a gallery not as conducive to such a quick read.
Moving on to Martinez’s Yaqui Flashback II, I enjoy it more than the paintings mentioned above because it begins to capture an intentional ambiguity which allows my imagination to take charge and bounce around within the context of the piece. I read nature as well as personal influences while seeing some other subdued cultural references. Even with the title which points directly at the artist’s ancestry, the painting still allows the viewer to browse through their own personal experience referentially and aesthetically. In the end, we can arrive at our own layers of meaning outside of the artist’s specificities.
The artists Rick Bartow and Truman Lowe both presented sculptural work. Bartow’s, The Responsibility of Raising a Child, is a traditionally cast bronze piece which is totem-like in nature and contains various American Indian mythological animal references. I was enticed by this piece because of my own sculptural influences and my interests in Native American legends, and although it appeals to those interests, it doesn’t get much further. It’s a piece that can be walked around and taken in without too much thought, and then, the viewer is free to dismiss it and move on to whatever comes next.
Lowes work, however, is less one-dimensional, and while his piece entitled Wah-Du-Sheh (Bundle) is made from materials traditionally used in American Indian culture to build shelters, weapons, vessels, etc., his title as well as his suspended forms recall these characteristics without being so literal as to read like an equation. I spent some time with this piece and studied the leather, wood, and paper materials, and though the craft and presentation is what drew me to the piece, it was the subtleties in shape and form as well as the contrast between violence and gracefulness that kept me involved. I can very easily imagine this piece being successful on display in a venue such as the Phillip’s Collection or at the Corcoran in terms of maintaining layered meaning with specific references and intentions.
Shelley Niro and Kent Monkman are a couple of photographers displaying work in the show. Niro’s intent in La Pieta is described as addressing the human and environmental tolls of armed, the displacement of her native people, and the cleansing and regenerative power of water. What we see is a series of beautiful photographs (a combination of color prints and black and whites) bordered by bead and fabric work which is intended to symbolize bloodshed, war, remembrance, and renewal. I think Niro’s intent to display war, violence, healing (both metaphorically and literally), and the sadness of being driven from one’s home is undermined by the seduction of capturing clear, pristine, detailed images with a streamlined presentation. The work could have been executed in a number of ways that still point to her noble intent without being so literal as to trap the work under its own weight. Instead, the work falls apart and fails by its own beauty.
Monkman displays dramatically different work than Niro by literally ‘dramatizing’ the photographs and by successfully executing his intent while also posing questions to society as a whole rather than simply as it applies to the American Indian. The Emergence of a Legend, a series of faux-antique photographs depicting Monkman’s alter ego, Miss Chief Shares Eagle Testicle (wordplay on ‘mischief’ and ‘egotistical’) in various guises, including as a performer in Wild West and vaudeville shows and as an actress in silent films, confronts the history of Indians performing for non-Indians. Monkman employs his flamboyant character, dressed in platform shoes, floor-length loincloth and elaborate feather headdress, as he calls attention to longstanding concerns such as the representation and misrepresentation of Indians in popular culture. Drawing inspiration also from broader contemporary culture, these staged photographs make reference to issues of femininity vs. masculinity, youth rebellion, and urbanization. I am glad to see that Monkman pays attention to the array of issues encompassing not only the American Indian but also contemporary American culture in general. In so doing, the work doesn’t limit itself to an exercise in Native American history but can, instead, stand alone outside of this particular setting.
Work such as Monkman’s photographs, Lowe’s Wah-du-Sheh, and a few other saving graces make Vantage point worth going to see, but while the exhibit has merit in presenting current views about the history of the American Indian, it accomplishes little else. This singular agenda is acceptable if one’s intention for seeing the show is educational in nature, but I realized that I wasn’t looking at ‘art’ made by American Indians. More than anything, the presentation revolves around work about Native American history which doesn’t require that one is or isn’t an American Indian. While the show did have its good points, it could have been described more accurately as a visual history lesson.