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"Cultural imPRINT"

Six decades of Northwest Coast indigenous prints

Ben Davidson (b.1976), Haida First Nation, “Just About,” 2014 screenprint, 28 1/2” x 18 1/2”. Photo credit: Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

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"Cultural imPRINT: Northwest Coast Prints" is an exhibition of some 45 prints by artists from the many Northwest coastal tribes over a period of six decades. From the earliest works to the most recent, these prints demonstrate a melding of ancient traditions with the latest aesthetic practices from the times in which they were made. Perhaps the most potent commonality is that they all have the visual impact of poster art combined with sensitive use of space and subtle color modulations. Most have some variation (in some cases very striking variations) on traditional imagery and narration. Two things that stand out in most of the prints are the generous use of white space between and around images and the clever interplay of positive and negative forms.

"Blueberries," embossed lithograph by James Schoppert of the Tlingit Tribe, looks like a photo of a wall of low-relief sculpture that has been washed with drippy purple and orange paint and then cut into nine squares and rearranged. It calls for close observation.

"Brothers Who Fell From the Sky" by Coast Salish artist IessLIE is a screen print from 2008 that pictures the heads and torsos of two figures depicted as strong geometric shapes in black and white set side-by-side, with one of them upside-down on a solid white ground with a yellow circle - the sun perhaps - between them. The yellow is so light that it almost disappears and seems to hover like a mirage.

Local contemporary artist Shaun Peterson, Coast Salish from the Puyallup Tribe, is represented by a digital print called "Daybreak." It pictures a simple face with lyrical and circular lines and extremely nuanced color modulations, which a wall label explains is a hallmark of Coast Salish design. As is the case with many of the works in this show, there is much more to see in this print than is evident in a quick glance.

Kelly Cannell's "Salish Rope" is a clever screen print with imagery that is almost hidden and pops out unexpectedly. It is a simple abstract depiction of a coil of rope or what looks to me like braided hair. Hidden within the coils are figures of women crawling upward, some in black on white and some in white on black.

Two works that stand out as quite different from everything else are drawings by the collaborative team of Tania Willard, Peter Morin and Gabe Hill, a trio of artists who go by the name New BC Indian Arts and Welfare Society. The two drawings by this group are done using the old surrealist method of exquisite corpse, a way of writing or drawing in which none of the collaborating artists see all of what the others do until the work is finished. In this case, they folded the drawings so parts drawn by each of them were hidden from view of the others, and then the parts were cut apart and taped together. The resulting drawings illustrate Native stories but in a style more like the Chicago Imagists or "Hairy Who" - quirky and inventive and strangely beautiful.

Another artist in this show whose work diverges from the Native tradition is John Brent Bennett of the Haida First Nation, showing two lithographs with dense and repetitive patterns superimposed over cityscapes and landscapes. His "Henslung" has circular patterns over a city skyline that are something like lines in a seismograph. It made me feel as if the city was about to be torn apart.

In the 20-plus years I've been reviewing art in the Pacific Northwest, I've seen a lot of Native art, and this is the best I've seen.

"Cultural imPRINT: Northwest Coast Prints," 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday, through Aug. 20, $15, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., third Thursday, free, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave. Tacoma, tacomaartmuseum.org

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