April 22, 2009

Remix riddled with clichés?

Are we past the age of an aboriginal art show?

By Sarah MilroyThe current exhibition Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World (at the Art Gallery of Ontario until Aug. 23) makes you think so. Assembling North American artists of whole or part aboriginal descent, this is an exhibition about the contemporary experience of being between cultures. As its title suggests, the show is positioned as a hip next chapter to the kind of exhibitions that introduced aboriginal artists to the mainstream art world a few decades back, group shows that highlighted cultural distinctness and the dignity of the traditional legacies from which they drew.

Organized by curators from both sides of the border (one of them Gerald McMaster, curator of Canadian art at the AGO), Remix is a collaboration of the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington (a division of the Smithsonian Institution, where McMaster formerly worked).

A prestigious accumulation of expertise was on tap, to be sure, but the results feel weary. The works on view seem to have lost the vitality of traditional culture, gaining little in the bargain. The curators have made weak choices: These works don't feel dynamically hybrid so much as simply diluted.

One could argue that this statement reflects a reactionary longing for racial "authenticity," or what one catalogue essay describes as "the exoticist demands of the West." But the fact is that much of this work seems to weakly recycle motifs from the mainstream art world without adding much. What's lacking here, ultimately, is not racial authenticity but artistic talent. It's a show riddled with clichés.
Comment:  As you probably don't recall, I posted previously on the Remix exhibit in Art in a Post-Indian World and Remixing Native Artists. These two writers didn't have the same negative reaction as Milroy.

Basically, Milroy seems to be against any art that's political, controversial, or challenging. She wants her art pure and timeless, unsullied by messages or themes.

True, this is a defensible position. I'm sure thousands of experts have debated the merits of political art. But she should say so upfront if she's biased against this type of art. It seems dishonest to pretend she's objective and then slam Aboriginal art as unduly political.

Unfortunately, as someone said, to be Indian is to be political. Indians often define themselves as living in two worlds and synthesizing the best of each. It shouldn't be any surprise that their art reflects this.

Yes, you can find Native art that isn't political: pottery, jewelry, basketry, weaving, etc. But should that be the only kind of Native art allowed? If Milroy doesn't want to deal with nontraditional, "hybrid" works, put another reviewer on the job.

Milroy's criticism wears thin

When Milroy dismisses works with "the gag immediately wears thin" or "these are one-liners," you can see what she's basing her judgment on. She more or less states it when she asks if anyone will display these pieces in 10 years. In other words, political art has no lasting value.

One probably could list many counterexamples of lasting political art, starting with Guernica. But so what? Who remembers any original art they saw 10 years ago? Not me.

Is that the sole purpose of art: to be remembered a long time? Maybe, but I'm not sure many artists would agree. If a work has an immediate impact--if it sparks a thought or feeling--some artists might call it a success. It's succeeded whether or not some museum chooses to recognize it.

As I said, all this is debatable. But Milroy hasn't engaged in the debate. About all she's done is dismiss nontraditional Native art as not her cup of tea. She gets no points from me for that kind of attitude.

Below:  Kent Monkman's Icon for a New Empire, which Milroy praises but then dismisses as "sound-bite art." I counterpredict that people will still consider this a good painting in 10, 20, or 50 years. They'll do so for the same reason they still like Magritte's "sound-bite" paintings: because they challenge our expectations.

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