THE Denver Art Museum was the first art museum in the country to collect native American arts as art rather than as artifacts. This difference in position is very important, because some of the colonial ethnocentric superiority is abandoned (or at least diminished) by the aesthetic rather than the natural-history approach to collection. And yet there are plenty of problems with understanding Indian art from the standpoint of Western aesthetics.
To begin with, native American cultures never separated art from life arbitrarily. It was simply part and parcel of everything else in daily experience - of religion, oral and written histories, education, clothing, household utensils, weapons, and military paraphernalia. When Indian art is displayed in a museum, it seems to be set apart from life as "aesthetic" experience, the way Western cultures set art apart.
Putting Indian art in a museum also seems to relegate it to the past - even in a lively and interesting display like the one in the Denver Art Museum (DAM). For many years, collectors and others needed to identify Indian art as Indian - belonging to specific cultures, identifiable by design and function. In the old days, a complex system of symbols peculiar to each tribe spoke volumes about everything from cosmology to moral values. But Indian artists also adapted the symbols of other tribes and cultures in an ongoing ever-expanding expression of their existence.
Indian art is not simply a phenomenon of the past. It continues - vibrant, innovative, and new. Contemporary artists sometimes use traditional materials in traditional ways. But others are deeply involved with nontraditional materials or with traditional materials reinterpreted in a new way. There is much more emphasis on personal expression today, but tribal symbolism and religious stories continually surface. "The realities of native American life today," as artist and curator Bently Spang points out, include all the artifacts of United-States culture right along with the individual Indian artist's own tribal values, symbols, and material culture.
One of the things a museum does by presenting the work of contemporary Indian artists is to keep before the public the continuing viability and energy of native cultures as expressed in art. The Denver Art Museum has made a concerted effort to do just that. A year and a half ago, it presented a spectacular exhibition of Navajo tapestries. Last year, DAM officials introduced the first in a series of long-term exhibitions of contemporary Indian artists. They also put together an impressive show called "Native Peoples...Our Ways Shall Continue," which surveys the history of native American art in the 20th century.
The first native American show this year is "Artists Who Are Indian," a changing exhibition that will run through January 1995. Mr. Spang, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, guest curates and has selected a powerful show featuring painting, sculpture, and jewelry.
"The art of the past taught people. It was beauty. It communicated on a tribal and on a personal level. It still does," Spang says. "A lot of those same things are happening - but in new media and in a more individualistic way. I think the artists are also presenting strategies for survival."
He points to Yurok artist Rick Bartow's "The Fisherman's Dream" (1991) as an example of a strategy for survival. As a Vietnam vet, Bartow had difficulty making the transition back to civilian life. But expressing himself through art helped him. Spang says that in "Dream," Bartow is telling Yuroks and other Indians that if they embrace who they are and carry forward the history and culture of their people, that affirmation of culture can help them to survive in a difficult dominant culture. There are still lessons to be learned from the old stories.
Some Indian artists want to be seen as artists who happen to be Indian. They are not all necessarily involved in tribal symbolism or myth. Their agenda is personal and private, says Spang. But in this show, most use the symbolism of their tribes or universal Indian symbols. Others make reference to more ancient Indian art forms, or delve into the socio-political realities of Indian life in America today, employing instantly recognizable imagery from native tradition.
Implicit in much of this work are those things Spang names as "strategies for survival." Concern for preservation of the land surfaces again and again. In "Installation #821," artist Tom Rudd (of the Seneca tribe ) lays out a giant, stylized bird skull (white marble) with an equally large projectile point (like a spear point - only much bigger) in volcanic ash raked to resemble the grid of an archeological dig. Stones and other organic debris finish off this piece - a warning about the possible archeology of the future, as well a reference to the past.
C. Maxx Stevens (Seminole) binds found objects into battered suitcases, each titled separately and placed facing one of the four directions of the compass. The four directions each represent sacred and distinct cosmological meanings in Indian religions.
In "Excavation," the suitcase contains wooden sticks bound by paint and resin to resemble ghastly bones. The image of a dead Indian (possibly from the Wounded Knee massacre) lies at the bottom. In "History," Ms. Stevens opens a yellowed book to a very old map of the United States. A ceramic human face with blindfolded eyes lies on top of it, perhaps symbolizing Indian blindness to the effects of Manifest Destiny until it was too late.
"Past" offers a box of toy Indians all covered in gray paint - as if frozen in time. The "Future" suitcase is tied shut. How it will be filled remains to be seen. But Stevens appears to be warning Indians to look at the past before looking to the future. The piece is powerful and horrific. But it is also, oddly, full of hope. That last suitcase may contain anything.
So much of this art appears to be a warning to look to the past, to remember not only the loss of lands and language, but to remember brave and noble forebears and the complexity and variety of Indian cultures - many of them thousands of years old. These cultures are and were nature-centered, and human presence has always been seen as a natural extension of the environment.
That may be why "Limited Habitat" by Joe Feddersen (Coleville) leaps out at the viewer in the affirmation of culture and nature together in its combination of sculpture and painting. Found objects are recycled into a spindly-legged deer form, its head made of beeswax. Melted beeswax has also been dripped all over the crude form. On the wall behind the deer, a sophisticated geometric pattern (in some tribes, it might represent a stylized butterfly, or perhaps a sun symbol) has been painted on canvas, then layered with beeswax. Striking and evocative, the piece speaks to the troubled state of the planet and the diminishing habitat for wildlife and for Indian cultures.
Lillian Pitt (Warm Springs/-Yakima) works in mixed media and ceramic to bring forward ancient imagery into distinctively contemporary terms. The piece "In Conflict Series" consists of three sticks joined onto a tripod upon which feathers, beads, and a ceramic mask has been hung. A variety of Indian tribes traditionally used such tripods to display shields. Here the mask, winking at the viewer in modernist distortion, suggests chagrin, sorrow, and dismay. But, for me as an outsider, it also suggests humor and the wit to hang contemporary life upon the traditions of the past.
Duane Slick (Mesquakie/Winnebago) carries ``Coyote the Trickster'' into the 20th century in acrylic on canvas and mixed media. Coyote appears in many Indian traditions, and he takes many forms. Part hero and part rogue, Coyote gets in and out of trouble and accomplishes great deeds, often with a witty twist.
Slick's work "Coyote's Mind" features a giant blow-up of a coyote's head from another source - a newspaper, perhaps, or a magazine. The coyote gazes nobly off in the distance. But in the distance is an amorphous form - reminiscent, but not imitative of a petroglyph form. On the wall beside ``Coyote's Mind'' is "Tatum," a small painting with a large apostrophe shape echoing a similar form in the other work.
Mr. Slick is also a poet, so an apostrophe seems appropriate. What has been left out of this picture? What understood? What abbreviated? Spang points out that in all Indian cultures, everything means more than it appears to on the surface. A rock is never just a rock, he says. It has more significance - a significance that may change from tribe to tribe.
Native American art has had a significant effect on the development of modern and contemporary art. Ever since the 1950s, more and more Indian artists have allowed contemporary art to make its mark on them as well. The result is a growing body of distinctive work by artists free to be themselves, both as artists and as Indians.
"Contemporary Indian art," Spang wrote in a museum publication," provides an opportunity to see `inside the Indian,' to experience the realities of Native American life today; often all that is seen is the romanticized exterior, the vanished other. [Art] also fosters understanding and commonalities among Indian people, that sense of community that is vital to Indian existence. It is Indian people showing Indian people who they are."
And it is showing everyone else who they are, as well. Art communicates; it leaps cultural barriers to reveal what is going on beneath the surface of human experience. Indian art celebrates courage, intelligence, and tradition.
These we all recognize.