Indigenous Evolution, 2005, by Rosemary Lonewolf and Tony Jojola, ceramics and blown glass. Permanent installation at the Heard Museum. Photograph © 2007 Catherine King.
by Jerome du Bois
So much contemporary art is beyond parody that, when I try to describe it, I feel like someone stuck with explaining a lame joke. The upside is that, since so many people take it seriously, there's a lot of material to poke fun at, which is healthier than seething with anger, I have learned. Sometimes it gives Catherine and I the opportunity to point to art that really is worth attending to. Which is not the case with --here he is! there he goes!-- Steven Yazzie trundling by in his cute l'il art car, trying to draw and steer at the same time.
Where to begin? Usually art writers draw on precedent first, just to show they know something. Okay, well, Chris Burden did the vehicle part of the notion better in 1977, with his B-Car. As for drawing under unusual constraints, Matthew Barney has been doing it since graduate school. It's a dumb idea, but that never stopped anybody, including once-local sweat artist Angela Ellsworth. Now we need someone drawing while skydiving, while underwater, while pursued by a bear . . .
No no no, Heard Museum curator Joe Baker explains; I'm missing the point. It's about being an American Indian:
For decades, Monument Valley was used as a backdrop in Hollywood Westerns that depicted American Indians in racist terms. These films fed into a mythology of the American West in which Indians were either stoic noblemen or fierce savages. In “Draw Me a Picture,” Yazzie challenges these stereotypes of Indian identity by re-envisioning this landscape from a fresh, alert vantage point.
From the driver’s seat of a self-styled art car, Yazzie winds along a red dirt road into Monument Valley while simultaneously creating drawings-in-motion of the dramatic red rock formations passing by. Powered only by gravity, the art car is “part sculpture, part rolling studio” according to curator Joe Baker. “Fitted with an attached easel, [the car] allows the artist to be in motion while drawing the advancing landscape.” The entire process is captured on film.
“Draw Me a Picture” shatters outmoded thinking about Indians by offering a new representation of this well-known American landscape. According to Baker, “through his actions and urgent drawings of Monument Valley, [Yazzie] reclaims this picture, making it his own by creating images that are free of expectations and stereotypical gestures of ‘Indianess.’ The final result is drawing that is alert to self, place, and time.”
The final result is drawing that doesn't look even a smidgeon like Monument Valley, and an Indian so swathed in safety devices --white helmet, reflective jumpsuit, red warning flags-- you'd think he was a porcelain doll. We've come a long way from counting coup, apparently. (I know, I know, that wasn't the Navajo.) And Joe Baker's trumpeting hits all the pomo flat notes: shatters outmoded thinking --reclaims this picture-- making it his own-- alert to self, place, and time.
From the only published review of this exhibition, I learned that the inclusion of the silent film The Vanishing American, with its shame-on-you-white-man theme, was Joe Baker's idea, not Yazzie's. If you browse Yazzie's web site about this Drawing and Driving project of his, he displays no obvious political overlay in his descriptions. He did this driving thang in Maine, and as far as I can tell that silly stunt was apolitical (and without a helmet). As for Joe Baker, his predictable political credentials were loudly evident in the "Holy Land" exhibition. Now, take away the Indian/racist scrim at the Heard exhibition, and what have you got? Something even thinner, no?
But wait --there's more.
I have a soft spot for the Navajo, having lived up there, primitively, a long time ago. They don't beat their women down, and their elaborate cosmology pays due respect to the awesome world. In fact, they say that traditional Navajos call this world, their Fourth World, the Glittering World.
The Glittering World. Yes, that's the way it looks to me, too. Reality is grainy, made up of trillions of hard little bits, combined in inexhaustibly beautiful ways. Not only that, the procession --and evolution-- of humanity through four worlds harmonizes nicely with Lee Smolin's cosmological natural selection, for which I also have a soft spot.
Instead of attacking the straw man of Hollywood, which left off racist depictions of Indians quite a while ago, Joe Baker (and Yazzie, if he's so inclined) could draw attention to the real dangers to continuing Navajo identity: Mormons, Adventists, Pentecostals, and the Native American Church. And don't forget the package of selfishness and greed --the way to make money-- that First Man sent the bird back to the drowning Third World to retrieve.
Veering back from the whole Indian schtick, leaving Steve Yazzie in the dust (what else is there to say about his gimmick, except that he should consider a variation --pole-dancing at SMoCA in May?), and anyway more generally . . .
[II] The Heard Museum is famous for its collections of indigenous art from around the world. Catherine and I made three long visits in the past few months, renewing a long-neglected acquaintance with the place, taking hundreds of photographs, and what struck us most deeply --and thankfully-- was the total lack of irony in the indigenous work. The art and artifacts face the world, and stand up to it, and glow with their hard-earned lives. (Catherine adds here, "We didn't even have any expectations, and we were blown away.")
Ironically, some of the Museum's curators (and preparators) for the past few years have felt the need to draw more contemporary audiences, so they turned their backs to the lessons of the indigenous art (some of which is contemporaneous), to try on some pomo shoes, get dazed and confused, and the contemporary art suffers by comparison.
We saw a pared-down version of "Holy Land," at the tail end of the exhibition, but the three centerpieces were still there:
1) the de la Torre brothers' trashy-trailer fused with Olmec head, insulting America while ripping off Jasper Johns and Ed Keinholz;
2) an inexplicable installation consisting of the following: a wall of red plastic ice coolers, one side of which had been cut open in a giant circle; six feet away, a vertical constuction of C-clamps of various sizes, like a wizened Stankewiecz; six feet further, a powerful mounted floodlight casting a shadow of the sculpture into the circle; that's it, that's the piece!;
3) An Israeli artist's piece called, I think, Tree House. In two parts: a wall-projected video of its construction, with the ectomorphic artist, bare-chested, well-bearded, and wearing baggy blue-and-white swimming trunks, uses sprockets, ratchets, and bolts to construct what you see on the floor next to the video projection. It's a bare mattress, and what rises awkwardly from its head is no tree house --there's no space to lie down-- but instead a spindly and starving wooden dream. I've built children's playground equipment that was far more complicated.
Catherine and I believe that every one of these contemporary pieces suffers in comparison with the objects highlighted above in the paragraph marked [II].
We leave readers to make their own comparisons.
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All photographs taken from Catherine's extended piece on the Heard Museum, still in preparation.
Cryin' And Dyin'. Paranormal Photography © 2007 Catherine King.
Two Nows In Platonia. Digital photocollage by Jerome du Bois from photos by Catherine King. © 2007.
For an explanation of the title, the reader needs to consult Julian Barbour.
Paranormal Photography © 2007 Catherine King.
Paranormal Photography © 2005 Jerome du Bois.
Third in The Cosmic Joke series. See sidebar.
Paranormal Photography © 2007 Catherine King.
Paranormal Photography © 2007 Catherine King. From a photo-based work in progress titled The Fullness Of Time.
A Woman's Reach. Digital Photocollage and Collage. 38" wide. © 2007 by King & du Bois
by Catherine King
This collage took its title from a poem by Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?” Seeing as the photograph is of my hand, though, Jerome and I decided to paraphrase the line.
The online search engine tells us that Browning's words suggest that, to achieve anything worthwhile, a person should attempt even those things that may turn out to be impossible.
While not untrue, I have more possible interpretations as applied to King & du Bois' latest piece.
This piece is about extending oneself by sheer will, as in morphing, changing oneself however necessary in order to accomplish, let's say, a task that one has set for oneself. It's about reaching farther than is ordinarily possible, or doing whatever it takes, because one refuses to accept limits.
So it's also quintessentially human, in that it's about the age-old desire to make a mark, to have some kind of an impact. It expresses the attempt of one soul to reach out, and in doing so to try one's hardest both to contribute and to communicate.
The image is timelessly mysterious, like those self-portrait handprints made by our cave-dwelling ancestors. All they left is proof that they, too, tried to touch their surroundings . . .
But, on the other hand, we all know that our efforts inevitably lead to unifying with our surroundings. We disperse and melt until there's nothing left.
The image is also postmodern -- it refers to fractals, of which everything is made, we now know. Like a tree, with fingers like leaves, the hand's development is always outward, upward, forward, making contact, solving problems, and creating beauty.