October 08, 2010

Washington Post reviews Vantage Point

New 'Vantage Point' show at American Indian museum shows off symbolic power

By Blake Gopnik"Vantage Point: The Contemporary Native Art Collection," a new exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, runs some of those risks, even though it was chosen from the recent works acquired by the native-run institution. It includes 31 pieces, and the lesser among them feel powerless, the fiddlings of people left with no more effective way to make a mark. Unlike mediocre works made by the culture that's on top, native works that lack artistic power can seem to represent the larger disempowerment of their makers. This leaves their artmaking souls--all that we've left them--suddenly looking less precious.

Luckily, the opposite is also true. Even if it can't change the world, powerful art stands as a symbol for the possibility of other kinds of power. And that's doubly true for art by native peoples, who start with the deck so stacked against them.

Among the works in "Vantage Point," the following struck me as particularly empowered and empowering.

--"Tire," made by Joe Feddersen, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, in 2003.
The work invites certain easy readings--of modernity riding roughshod over the past or of the mechanized crushing the natural. But I think the piece invites more subtle interpretations, too. The tire track is too appealing, as a pattern, to be cast as the villain: It is closer to a booming but necessary present, laid over, but not canceling out, a past that's more genteel--or at least is made to seem that way by time. Indians, like all of us, live in both present and past, and can master both, as Feddersen has done. His work's ambivalence is the source of its power.And:--"Indian Act," a work finished in 2002 by Nadia Myre, an Anishinaabe Canadian from the Kitigan Zibi First Nation of Quebec.The beading gives some sense of a crossing out, of a denial and repudiation of the content of the act. You could see it almost as a turning back of the clock, transforming a legal document into a traditional decorative textile, and asserting the power of Indian craft over European law. But meticulously decorating the document also evokes a certain sense of respect for it. You tear up a text you hate, you don't spend vast effort making it more beautiful. There's some sense that, in their beautification, Myre and her collaborators have decided to make the Indian Act their own, for better or worse.Comment:  Love the descriptions of these pieces. But Gopnik's review sounds mixed at best. Maybe worse than mixed if he loved only four of the 31 pieces.

For more on the exhibit, see Vantage Point at NMAI. For more on contemporary Native art, see Innovations at Indian Market and Defying Expectations with Native Art.

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