Where are the indigenous stories, communities, and artists within “American” contemporary art? As we wait for big institutions to grapple with this question, two gallery group shows — which were simultaneously on display for a few weeks — offer an answer. At Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba was How to catch eel and grow corn, curated by Stephen Hepworth, and at Radiator Gallery is You Are on Indian Land, curated by Erin Joyce (who’s also a Hyperallergic contributor). Both exhibitions show artists investigating America — its psyche, history, and landscape — with eyes unfazed by the stories it tells about itself.
In How to catch eel and grow corn, works by five female artists from the group Amerinda hung in conversation with each other. Maria Hupfield’s draped fabrics invited you into the space — colorful strips lying across a baby grand piano and a gray felt circle adorned with silver bells — along with Nadema Agard’s circular mandala on the floor. Hupfield activates her works by wrapping her body in the felt and performing, the silver bells becoming musical.
More pieces by Agard, semi-abstract spiritual sculptures, shared a gallery with Melissa Staiger’s colorful, geometric abstractions. Staiger’s paintings layer neon orbs with squiggly lines or round masses; looking at them, you feel yourself entering a personal, playful cosmos. A sculpture by Agard sat on a plinth in front of them, referencing the actual cosmos: each side is a small green canvas adorned with a satin sculpture of a colored star, representing the morning stars of the four cardinal directions. The sculpture is topped with a bulbous blue circle, standing in for the sky.
Another room was dominated by a floor-to-ceiling site-specific painting by Athena LaTocha, in which she used rocks and shredded tires to spread sumi ink across large photographic papers. The deep black brushes and smudges against the white-gray gloss of the paper look like they come straight from the tundras of Alaska, where her father took her as a child. Pena Bonita offered a different take on geography with her row of bags filled with beads and shredded money on a stick. Each of the bags is stamped with a name: Park, Madison, Rector, Broadway. We realize we are looking at an interpretive map of New York City — the piece a reminder that we are, as the title says, “Hanging out on Iroquois and Algonquin Trails,” with a wry reference to the infamous legend that Manhattan was “sold for beads.”
The same issue of ownership titles the show at Radiator: You Are On Indian Land, featuring a group of male artists in the two small galleries of the walk-up space in Long Island City. In Postcommodity’s two-channel installation, which plays on infinite loop, the camera speeds along the Arizona-Mexico border. Called “A Very Long Line,” the video is a meditation on how recent this border is, and how nationalism necessarily leads to militarization.
Edgar Heap of Birds’ white-on-red monoprints look like they could become picket signs, but with poetic, intense messages that resist easy interpretation: “NATIVE IS PAIN DONE IN BROWNS” and “DEEDS NOT DEMANDS SPIRIT OUR SPHERE.” The all-caps words and direct style challenge the viewer to bring their own associations to these loaded phrases. Across the wall, Marcus Amerman has riffed on the form of the dreamcatcher, decorating hubcaps with a mix of pop imagery, feathers, and shreds of the US flag. Perhaps, hung above your bed, they keep the American dream out of your nightmares.
In Nicholas Galanin’s video performance, “Re-Skinning a Dead Wolf,” we see the artist do just that: methodically flay a wolf’s skin from the plastic body glued to it. Behind him, we see not the great outdoors but a living room with TV and gaming system, underlining the absurdity of the process, as if this were a cooking show. The next gallery shows us the products of the skinning: one hide laid flat on the floor like a rug, another with just the upper body held up. The latter looks as if it is trying to get away, giving the whole work a sense of sad futility — a creature crawling from its fate, from its own crushed body.
US arts organizations, like their country more generally, are at a loss to reconcile indigenous American stories with the one that began in 1492, or 1776. Though we have seen museums progress in their presentation of traditional Native art, such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ acclaimed reinstallation of the Art of the Americas Wing in 2010 and the Metropolitan Museum’s recent Plains Indians exhibition, attention to contemporary art by Native practitioners and about Native communities remains a vast blind spot. As Hyperallergic reported, the Whitney Museum includes just one Native American artist in its new collection survey, America Is Hard to See. The exhibitions at Wilmer Jennings and Radiator are a reminder that not only can art be both contemporary and indigenous, but the indigenous experience is a prime vantage point from which to see the folly, wonder, violence, and contradictions of this land.
You Are on Indian Land continues at Radiator Gallery (10-61 Jackson Ave, Long Island City) through June 13. How to catch eel and grow corn was on view at Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkelaba (219 E 2nd Street, East Village, Manhattan) from April 8 to May 16.