SAN FRANCISCO — How would you describe the art of Native Americans? If you were unfamiliar with the field of Native American contemporary art then you might muse on woven rugs in rich hues, ceramic vessels, silver jewelry inlaid with turquoise, petroglyphs etched or painted on sandstone walls, and carved totems with animal motifs.
Woody Crumbo spent six decades of the mid-20th century promoting Native American art to the mainstream, where often it was seen as a novelty or niche by wealthy collectors. Through printmaking, he mass produced his depictions of animals, dancers, and other vibrant images so that anyone could afford his work. Yet despite his prolific career, which included participating in hundreds of exhibits, painting murals inside the US Department of Interior, and having hundreds of his pieces acquired by museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, Crumbo’s art has, somewhat ironically, become a niche interest, often overlooked even when his influence in bringing Native American work into the contemporary art world remains a powerful presence.
My first impression coming into Jeffrey Gibson’s solo exhibition at Marc Straus in the Lower East Side was one of a refined sensual pleasure with a complex edge. Vibrant color painted in geometric shapes on animal hide stretched over trapezoidal forms and ironing boards is the initial entree to an imminent encounter with the unanticipated.
The following is an interview with artist Bently Spang, whose work appears in the Brooklyn Museum’s current Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains exhibit. Through the interview, Spang explores ideas of Native American identity, cultural stereotypes and the difficulty of showing Native American spiritual objects in museum spaces. The Brooklyn Museum show makes progress, Spang says, but there remain problems to be solved.
A traditional 19th-century Sioux warrior shirt in the Brooklyn Museum’s current Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains exhibit is made from buckskin, decorated with green and red pigment, hair, feather, fiber and a white and red beaded bear claw motif. Like all Plains war shirts, it could only be worn by males after acts of bravery in battle.
Exhibited just a few feet away, Northern Cheyenne contemporary artist Bently Spang’s “War Shirt #3, The Great Divide” (2006) is made out of photographs, photographic film, sinew, velvet and found objects such as the compact disc pinned on the shirt’s center like a decorative medallion or amulet. Its arms are outstretched through a white plastic stand in the form of a “t” and two tiny white plastic toy horses flank either side of its base. Like the traditional Sioux shirt, Spang’s is now ensconced in a glass case but it has never been — nor will it ever be — worn.
Every so often an art review riles readers and critics enough to actually respond to it. That’s what happened after New York Times art critic Ken Johnson’s review of the Brooklyn Museum’s Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains exhibit was published a week and a half ago. Johnson is not shy about stating his assessment up front, leading with “You know there’s trouble when the first object you encounter in a museum exhibition looks as if it had been misplaced from the gift shop.” Johnson faults the museum for exhibiting “kitschy” contemporary Native American artists alongside the “outstanding” mostly 19th-century Plains objects that make up the majority of the exhibition.
The re-installation of the Denver Art Museum’s American Indian art galleries has an important new feature: individual artist names are now included on its wall labels. The comprehensive re-installation heralds a new move towards recognition of the history of Native American art, as well as Native American artists’ contribution to a larger American art history.
The purpose of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ new Art of the Americas wing to provide a space to tell the entire story of American art. Yet visitors may be surprised to find the ground floor of the new wing occupied by Aztec, Mayan and Native American art, sharing space with early colonial work. The new galleries question the idea that “American” art is solely defined by work created in the United States, tied to the too-strong connection between “America” and the colonial US. The MFA instead presents art from this era of both Americas, South and North, as a continuum, part of a dynamic intercultural milieu. But how far does the museum go in redefining what we mean by “American” art?