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ANOTHER’S SKIN

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Publication: Journal Santa Fe Section; Date: May 6, 2011; Section: Gallery Guide; Page: S8

ANOTHER’S SKIN EXHIBITION SHOWS CONNECTIONS, DISTINCTIONS Art Issues MALIN WILSONPOWELL For the Journal

The provocatively titled “Hide: Skin as Material and Metaphor” exhibition takes multiple twists and turns in the service of moving along both art and discourse in the face of persistent American racism and a predominately lily-white art world. The generation of contemporary Native American artists featured — born between 1965 and 1980 — is sophisticated, academically trained and well-traveled. The whole enterprise, including the fundamental structure and vision, the multimedia works and eight finely honed essays in the catalog, present the current edge of American Indian art and criticism. Organized by The National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center, a New York branch of the Smithsonian, the exhibition was originally unveiled in two successive parts that have been trimmed and combined for the Santa Fe installation. The New York City version began with two solo shows, including translucent hides by Sonya Kelliher-Combs, and the exploration of scars and “bead words” by Nadia Myre. The second part followed with a solo show of hammered metal and rocks by Michael Belmore and a selection of portrait photography by five artists. Two short videos — “Metrosexual” by Terence Houle, one of the photographers, and “Tattoo” by Nadia Myre — ran through both parts of the New York exhibition. This is an unusual structure for an exhibition — three solo exhibitions and a fourth group of photographers — that appears to be a strategy for avoiding 1990s theme shows exploring identity politics that often reduced the work of individual artists to illustrations of a curator’s arguments. Whatever the reason, the show on the walls at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts expands and contracts in uneven, unexpected ways, unlike shows where curatorial leveling allots each artist a similar amount of real estate. Here Arthur Renwick’s confrontational photographic portraits are installed in the first gallery and have the weight of the solo show artists. Toronto-based Renwick asked his community of artists, writers and performers to distort their faces by squeezing and stretching their skin. At least four times larger than life, the color prints of closely cropped heads both reveal and conceal. The large image of “Tom” (2006) is described in the text has having “a sublime quality similar to the hodii, the tradition of false faces worn by members of curing societies among the Haudenosuanee, and the Northwest Coast mask-making traditions.” For more than a century, Europeans have falsely framed Native Americans through their lenses and cultural biases. At the museum, it is refreshing to see willing collaborators in the construction of the identities they present, often with a good deal of humor and confidence. The metaphor of skin is, of course, a powerful one for all cultures. Skin is the largest organ for every mammal, an all-encompassing surface that protects and yet is permeable, allowing both absorption and release of sensations, fluids, gasses and information. The work of Kelliher-Combs and Myre make up most of this installation, and both these artists work in a post-minimalist mode of repetition to expose privately held traumas to the cleansing light of public scrutiny. Their intensely crafted work relies not only on their indigenous inheritance but directly relates to feminist breakthroughs of the early 1960s and 1970s by such artists as Hannah Wilke, Eve Hesse and Harmony Hammond. Of the three series by Alaskan artist Kelliher-Combs, her 40-plus finger-shaped “Small Secrets” (2009), made from walrus stomach, human hair, glass beads and nylon thread, are the most disturbing objects on view. Her “Brand” series (also 2009) of many hides — perforated and sometimes painted — stretched over deep boxy frames are her most mainstream. Kelliher-Comb’s translucent acrylic polymer “faux hide” paintings worked on both back and front have an open floating sensation, as well as the intimacy of personal symbols similar to abstractions by Emi Whitehorse. Myre’s “Scar Project,” begun in 2005 of torn, ripped, sliced, gouged and sometimes repaired raw canvasses has become a huge project enlisting people to create and write a scar story. Numbering more than 500 small square canvasses, when “Hide” first opened, dozens were hung in a somber monochromatic array. Most elegant are Myre’s “Scarscapes,” stories she has covered with glass beads. While the show’s content reflects many of the title’s multiple references, especially Native American use of buffalo, deer and walrus hide and its incantation as a verb or the ability to operate out of view, it completely ignores the vernacular “skin flick.” During the museum’s reopening shows last year, Nicolas Galanin addressed Edward Curtis’s colonial paradigm with his series of large-scale photographs of female nudes posed in high heels and wearing Indonesian-made Tlingit masks, all in a saturated 1950s porn palette. However, no prurient interest will be satisfied by the dignity and modesty on view in this exhibition. Performance artist Terrance Houle exposes the most skin of any artist in the exhibit in his “Urban Indian Series” (2007), a sequence of himself doing the most mundane daily activities wearing elaborate, traditional Grass Dance regalia. No porn star he, Houle is first documented, back to the camera, in a standard-issue American bedroom wearing Cherokee brand boxers as he begins to dress in full powwow-ready wear. Whether riding the bus or shopping for veggies, Houle’s deadpan demeanor skillfully disarms the viewer, while “challenging the suggestion that I am out of place in a world that only identifies with conformity.” The fact that six of the eight artists included in this exhibition are Canadian — plus one each from Alaska and California — seems a clear affirmation of a pan-Indian conversation that ignores white men’s borders. However, the preponderance of Canadians also made me wonder about the differences between North American legacies of racism. The U.S. “melting pot” and current “blood quantum” policies are very different from Canada’s selfconscious national identity as a “mosaic” of cultures and recent First Nations victories in court for resources and land. These separate legacies are playing out before our eyes like so many of the serious political issues addressed in the catalog. It is a catalog well worth studying, especially the clarifying and challenging essay by Richard William Hill, “After Authenticity: A Post-Mortem on the Racialized Indian Body.” A notable and seamless — although certainly unintended — addition hangs in the hallway next to the “Hide” exhibition. It is a series of medicine cabinets with smashed mirrors and decals filled with misshapen bottles by Marty Two Bulls. One of this year’s graduates from the Institute of American Indian Arts, Two Bulls’ loaded metaphors offer another dynamic reflection on constructing contemporary native identities. If you go WHAT: “Hide: Skin as Material and Metaphor” WHERE: Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, 108 Cathedral Place WHEN: Through July 31. Museum hours: Monday-Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday: noon to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays through May.

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ANOTHER’S SKIN

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COST: Adults: $10. Seniors (62+), students with valid ID and New Mexico residents: half price. Free on Sunday to Native people, members, veterans, children 16 and under, and state residents. CONTACT: 988-8900 or www.iaiamuseum. org

“Tom” is a 2006 inkjet print on paper by Toronto-based artist Arthur Renwick.

COURTESY MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY NATIVE ART Performance artist Terrance Houle shops for veggies while decked out in traditional Grass Dance regalia in “Urban Indian Series (No. 7),” a 2007 digital C-print.

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ANOTHER’S SKIN

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“Small Secrets” (detail) is a 2009 series of finger-shaped constructions of walrus stomach, human hair, glass beads and nylon thread by Alaska artist Sonya KelliherCombs.

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Hide_ Skin as Material and Metaphor at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts