NEW YORK — THERE are so many ways to respond to ``Masters of the Arctic,'' the 150-work traveling exhibition of Inuit (Eskimo) art currently on view at the United Nations here. There's the simple wonder of it all, the surprise of discovering that ``untrained'' artists living so far from ``civilization'' could produce work of such uncommon beauty and sophistication.
There's the pleasure of finding oneself surrounded by so many delightful, lovingly rendered two- and three-dimensional representations of the people, beasts, and birds from the polar north.
There's gratitude that serious attempts are now being made to bring Inuit art out into the world. And that such a large assemblage of Inuit masterworks has gone on display in so public and international an arena.
We have the United Nations Environment Program and the permanent missions of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Canada to thank for this exhibition - as well as Thomas E. Wells, who organized it, and the Amway company, which provided funding.
The exhibition features works by over 100 artists, spanning three generations, each of whom selected one or more pieces for inclusion in the show. Most of the works are fairly massive carved stone sculptures, though a few are small enough to be held in the hand. Also on view are tiny, rarely seen ivory carvings from Siberia, prints, and a ``Coat of Life'' parka.
Over 20 Inuit settlements, each associated with a particular style of carving, are represented with depictions of bears, seals, walruses, musk oxen, caribou, and owls - as well as an occasional Inuit or two. All of the creatures, including those utilized for the depiction of Inuit myths, are portrayed simply and directly. Many of the carved pieces portray a hunt, the animal hunted, and the intense spiritual identification of an Inuit with other living creatures. In these, the respect of the hunter for the hunted is clearly evident.
Terrence Heath, in his introduction to the exhibition catalog, discusses the Inuit's creative motivation: ``The sculptural art seems to be the articulation of many selves. It is not self-expression, but expression of selves. The world, material and spiritual, appears to be experienced as a continuum rather than as a dichotomy; the `I' of the owl is not separated from the `I' of the man, from the `I' of the seal, from the `I' of the stone, from the `I' of the carver.
``The corollary of such a living in other selves is that the self is not inviolate, sacrosant, contained. It is rather, fluid, changing in shape, multiple. ... Animals embrace animals, become other animals or humans. Within pieces, parts take on aspects of other parts, as in the corkscrew body of the narwhal by Nuna Parr, which imitates the corkscrew tusk, or the distinctly bird-like stance of Nalenik Temela's `Bear.' In others, such as Philip Kamipakittug's `Bird/Man Singing,' the song itself becomes the wings, the gesture of singing is the singing self.''
Although Inuit art reflects thousands of years of shared beliefs and customs, the works themselves represent only four decades of development. Modern Inuit art dates back to 1948, when the Canadian government and the Hudson Bay Company began supporting artmaking activities to solve the economic problems of the Inuit. The art produced today, as a result, is often made by artists old enough to have strong links to the Inuit's past as hunters but who live in a world with satellite dishes and video games.
Fortunately, no evidence of these modern inventions can be found in this exhibition. The focus is entirely on Inuit culture, the animals and birds the Inuit need to survive, and the myths and legends that involve these creatures.
In the truest sense, Inuit art is monumental, whether it's a tiny ivory carving of a mammoth less than one inch high, or a two- or three-foot-high soapstone carving of one of the North's larger animals. In Inuit sculpture, form, the harmonious interrelationship of parts to the whole, is everything. Size and bulk are next to nothing.
This quality is best demonstrated in such outstanding pieces as Kaka Ashoona's white quartz carving of a ``Great Ice Bear''; Enook Manomie's soapstone, ``Great Walrus''; Nalenik Temela's marvelous ``Dancing to My Spirit''; and Nuyaliaq Qimirpik's magnificent, ``Strength of the Land.'' All are relatively small in size, but all give the impression of weightiness and importance.
This excellent exhibition will continue in the main lobby of the United Nations General Assembly Building through July 31. A worldwide tour is being arranged but the stops are not yet definite.