April 23, 2007

Alaskan art overturns expectations

Show a refreshing wade into a whirlpool of social issues“Con-Census,” an exhibition of Alaska Native art showing at the Anchorage Museum, is a skillful blend of aesthetics and education, visually striking, thought-provoking and boldly personal. It is a meld of traditional and modern ele­ments, set within a minimal format and layered with references to intellectual challenges and moral dilemmas. Anchorage artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs was selected to develop the exhibition as the current offering in the yearly series “Points of View.” The stated purpose of the series is to use guest curators to “bring a unique vision” to the museum’s extensive collection of art and artifacts. These curators are encouraged to take a fresh look at the collection, draw new conclusions and highlight pieces not usually exhibited.

Judged by each of the criteria, “Con-Census” is successful. Previous guest curators in the series have made statements with items selected from the museum storerooms and by their arrangements of those selections. Kelliher-Combs, however, takes items from the museum’s closet--old handmade mittens or mukluks--and deploys them in conjunction with outside material--boot boxes, wine corks, identification cards--in assembled installations that become new and complete artworks in themselves.
Some examples:“Goodbye” is a memorial to those who died as a result of suicide. Thirty-eight pairs of gloves and mittens representing Alaska Natives who died by their own hand since 2005 are arranged on a platform, fingers pointed upward. Kelliher-Combs has used mittens and their accompanying “idiot strings” as metaphors in much of her own work. The sincerity and warmth expressed in the memorial are moving.

“Overflow” is a single container--a fine example of bentwood utilitarian craftsmanship. It is heaped with wine corks. In “Offering,” the filling in the container consists of pull-tabs from the gambling industry.

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