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"In the Spirit"

Native American art at the Washington State History Museum

“Bear II” steel sculpture by Jason Reed Brown. Photo courtesy Washington State History Museum

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There is a small but interesting show of Northwest Native American art now on display at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. The 12th annual "In the Spirit: Contemporary Native Art" juried exhibition includes 22 works by artists from Alaska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Washington and Canada, displayed in two adjacent galleries.

Over the 20-some years I have reviewed contemporary Native art, one overriding claim has been proclaimed of the art, and that is that it blends the traditional and contemporary. But most of the art in these shows, with a very few exceptions, has been much more traditional than contemporary, if by contemporary we mean in the Western art canon. In many instances, the only contemporary thing about the art is the choice of materials. Blown, fused and sculpted glass, for instance, is common in contemporary Native art, but the use of modern materials does not necessarily make the art contemporary in concept or aesthetics.

But this show blends the traditional and the contemporary more than usual. There are more wholly abstract works in this exhibition than in any Native art show I've seen, and more time-honored images rendered in a modern style. An excellent example can be seen in Linley B. Logan's "Red Road Red Carpet," linoleum and paint. This picture has the look of a modern graphic novel, with a fierce warrior wearing a bowtie and holding feathers, while on his sleeve he wears the images of two faces that could have been lifted right out of Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignon." Or Jennifer Wood's "She's Always Looking for Mountains." It is a fairly traditional wooden mask, but on top of the mask like hair standing on end is a field of plastic straws, LED lights, ribbon and shimmer pigment that can be seen as a glowing mountain range, making for a startlingly modern image.

Celeste Kardonsky Dybeck's "Kardonsky Family Tree" was named Best in Show. It is her own family portrait, which she calls "a mysterious family." The father is represented by a raven, the mother is the moon, and the children are waves. It is a child-like tapestry made of wool, suede and mother-of-pearl buttons.

There is a strong industrial look to Jason Reed Brown's two steel sculptures "Bear II" and "Hummingbird II," most noticeably "Bear II," a profile of a bear's face embedded in punched, raised, riveted and bent steel.

A favorite of mine is Ryan Feddersen's "Manifest Signs (I)." This bright sculptural work features colorful flat cutout bison heads in pink, orange, blue and raised an inch above the surface of a flat white surface, upon which has been painted the stark black shadow of power lines and poles. Wall text explains that it represents 270 million bison slaughtered by settlers, businesses and the United States military. The balance of black and white, the sharp contrasts of color and shape, and the bright, colorful and almost playful representation of the horror of wiping out the bison combine to make for compelling art.

One of the most original works in concept is Erin Genia's "Dakota in the Pacific Northwest." A cascade of rain ("jingles") hangs from a circular cloud made of cloth that hangs from the ceiling, and floating in the center is a quilted "morning star" in diamond-shaped panels of red, yellow, orange, pink, white and yellow. A wall label describes it as embodying "the beauty and resilience of our people even when far from home" after the Dakota were exiled from their homeland in Minnesota.

I hope many of our readers will visit this exhibit.

"In the Spirit: Contemporary Native Art," 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Third Thursday, through Aug. 20, $8-$12 museum admission, free for members and free for all after 2 p.m. for Third Thursday Art Walk, Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.272.9747, washingtonhistory.org

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