LOS ANGELES — The jangle of horses reverberates through the long, narrow corridor that leads to the entrance of Various Small Fires. The sound conjures up images of dusty trails, as the rhythm of the horses’ gait accentuates your own footsteps, creating an overwhelming sensation of being corralled between the two walls. At the end of the corridor is the gallery’s gravel courtyard, an oversized yellow balloon swaying in its center. The balloon, though exuberant as it bounces in the wind, also suggests something more serious: a pattern of red, blue, and black concentric circles recalls a target or an evil eye. Both the balloon and sound piece are by Indigenous arts collective Postcommodity. The balloon — originally part of the collective’s 2015 land art installation delineating the US/Mexico border, titled Repellent Fence — calls attention to the history of the border itself as a product of settler colonialism, reminding viewers of the Indigenous communities who have historically been and continue to be impacted by its policies.

These two pieces create an entry point to approach the rest of the exhibition Snake whisky still life and other stories by first acknowledging the literal land upon which the exhibition is staged, and then reminding viewers of all the histories, contested narratives, and meanings that land holds. This recognition gains particular resonance when considering that the show, curated by Todd Bockley of the Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis, brings together an intergenerational group of 11 Native American and Indigenous artists.

Installation view of works by Eric-Paul Riege. Left to right: “my god, YE’ii [1]” (2018-21), ink jet print, mixed fiber frame, 53 x 41 x 4 inches; “let the Holy ppl watch over U and Me [2]” (2018-19), mixed media and fiber installation, 36 x 78 x 4 inches; “my god, YE’ii [2]” (2018-21), ink jet print, mixed fiber frame, 53 x 41 x 4 inches (photo by the author)

The exhibition tackles the stereotyping, misrepresentation, and appropriation of Indigenous cultures, beautifully conveyed through a number of paintings and drawings dealing with mythology — like Julie Buffalohead’s large-scale work “The Nourished” (2019) — or through a jingle-and-pow-wow-bell sculpture like Brad Kahlhamer’s “Super Catcher” (2021), which uses the form of the dreamcatcher to merge the formal elements of a modernist Bertoia-esque sound sculpture or Ruth Asawa wire work with a post-punk critique of the commodification of identity. 

Interestingly, the show also includes several photographs by artists such as Cara Romero, Tom Jones, and Pao Houa Her, who all engage with highly staged takes on documentary style photography. Hmong-American artist Pao Houa Her, whose work “Snake whisky still life” provides the exhibition’s title, presents a tableau-style image of a bottle of snake whisky and a pair of mangos in a plastic bag underneath a bouquet of artificial flowers. Though these objects exude a sense of intimacy and domesticity, the photograph’s careful arrangement and dramatic lighting belie any impression of spontaneity. By heightening the sense of theater in documentary photography — a genre that historically has been closely linked to the Western lens of “objectivity” documenting the Other — these artists draw attention to the fallacy of objective representation and highlight the slipperiness between the performance of identity and its embodiment. 

The exhibition’s lack of a cohesive narrative in favor of a more open-ended survey acts as a reminder that, like land, art, too, is a space of contested meaning — one of commentary, criticism, and commodity, to be sure — but also as a method of contemplation, a material connection to one’s heritage, and as a means of forging a new set of relationships with the world. 

Lauren Roche, “Lost Memory” (2021), ink and pigmented acrylic wash on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 inches, 27 x 34 inches framed (photo by Patrick Friedman Schaffer)
Brad Kahlhamer, “Ugh x 4 / 4 x Ugh” (2021), wire, jingles, pow wow bells, 80 x 64 1/2 x 6 inches (photo by the author)
Detail of Julie Buffalohead, “The Nourished” (2019), acrylic, graphite, and collage on Lokta paper, 52 x 136 inches (photo by Patrick Friedman Schaffer)

Snake whisky still life and other stories continues at Various Small Fires (812 North Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, California) through February 20. The exhibition was curated by Todd Bockley.

Caroline Ellen Liou is an Asian-American art worker based in Los Angeles. She received a BFA in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design and an MA in contemporary Chinese art and geopolitics at the...