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Art and the Material World at Boise Art Museum

Boise Art Museum explores the way we were


This is an era of instant access to new ideas and perspectives from around the globe, infusing the mainstream and influencing thought, behavior and creativity. It is sometimes difficult to relate to a time when forms, patterns and designs were the manifestation of cultural conventions that evolved over hundreds of years.

In its exhibit Origins: Objects of Material Culture, the Boise Art Museum demonstrates that cross-cultural fertilization has influenced how materials are used and artistry between contrasting societies since before the Age of Discovery.

BAM has been celebrating its 75th anniversary with a series of three compelling exhibitions, all of which have a common thread: the multicultural, multi-formal aspects that connect today's art to that from the past. The well-received Nick Cave show Meet Me at the Center of the Earth, in 2012, combined found-object art, performance, fashion and sculpture, drawing from various urban and tribal cultures, as well as shamanistic traditions. The yearlong exhibit Eastern Traditions-Western Expressions presented historic and contemporary Asian and Asian-American artworks, demonstrating their mutual influences in different media.

Origins (which opened Feb. 23 and hangs through Jan. 12, 2014) is another yearlong project in this vein, albeit much broader and comprehensive in scope. It underscores a spirit of invention that historic cultures share with modernism.

It's quite an achievement for an isolated, regional art museum to pull off a production like Origins, which fills four galleries and interconnecting spaces with art and artifacts from four distinct indigenous cultures. Previously, BAM shows of this type have been smaller in scale, focusing on individual collections. Here, Origins examines diverse cultures ranging from Native American tribes of the Southwest (Arizona and New Mexico), Plains, Pacific Northwest and Arctic to Melanesian (specifically Papua New Guinea) tribes in the Pacific and Africa. The time frame extends from before first contact with Europeans to our own era.

Funded to a large extent by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the exhibit presents a view of the cross-cultural similarities in materials, methods and aesthetics. Based primarily on works in BAM's permanent collection, there are also significant contributions from the Orma J. Smith Museum of Natural History at the College of Idaho, the Idaho State Historical Museum and local private collectors.

With more than 250 objects on display, the works demonstrate how crucial the artists and craftsmen were in establishing a sense of identity and place for these various cultures, through the materials they obtained from their natural environment to the rituals they symbolized and the art forms that predominated. With material dexterity and a communal sensibility, they were able to define and perpetuate a living culture.

Yet, there is a universal quality to the objects created by such widely separated peoples--the most obvious commonality being the limited resources available before the arrival of Europeans. This meant artists had to rely on plant fibers, animal hides and bones, feathers, hair, shells, etc.--basically, materials dictated by geography. The ingenuity it required allowed for a wonderful serendipity in the show, an aptitude for making appealing discoveries by accident.

This characteristic leads to another universal element: the pride these artists and artisans took in making utilitarian objects visually appealing. Spiritual and ritualistic considerations were factors as well, but underlying even the most mundane works is a remarkable inventiveness.

BAM Curator Sandy Harthorn, who organized the show, pointed out that by showing the older objects alongside more recent ones demonstrates the "growing importance of the idea" in the making of artifacts, overriding functional considerations and, later, monetary value.

What viewers are witnessing, in other words, is the evolution of aesthetics in each of these cultures.

Particularly striking is how comfortable these artists and artisans were with the use of abstract form, not only in design work, but in figurative renderings. Considering how the American public had to be dragged kicking and screaming from reassuring realism to the world of nonobjective art, it's amazing how abstract forms were practically second nature from very early on. This ultimately impacted Western culture in the early 20th century, when African and Oceanic artifacts were sent home, forming the basis of ethnographic collections that would influence Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Fauve painters, German expressionists and other pioneers of modern art.

In fact, an argument could be made that the origin of BAM's Origins was the groundbreaking exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984. Primitivism in 20th Century Art was the first comprehensive consideration of the subject.

Harthorn attended that show in New York and has long been interested in how European goods made an impact on tribal cultures, which in turn influenced Western aesthetics. For example, the glass beads that became a signature element in Native American art were manufactured in Italy and made their way through trade routes in Africa and Asia, eventually arriving in North America as trading goods. This phenomenon of cultural cross-seeding despite contrasts in style intrigued Harthorn and helps to explain the unique approach of the Origins exhibit.

The Americas are a cultural universe unto themselves, with North America alone providing a treasure trove of cultural objects for the show. Examples from Arizona and New Mexico have a large gallery all to themselves and boast some of the highest quality exhibits, thanks in part to the large number of objects in the museum's own collection, as well as those on loan from institutional and private collectors.

The plethora of baskets, ceramics, dyed wool works and wickerwork from this one corner of the country indicates the level of productivity from the tribes in the area, which has made it the focus of collectors for decades.

One of those collectors is Idaho artist Kerry Moosman, who donated many pieces to the show. A renowned ceramic artist in his own right, Moosman was influenced by what he has acquired from the region, with artifacts dating back to pre-European contact days. The direct simplicity of Southwest Native American artifacts inspired him the most--the inventiveness with what was at hand, and the influence of seasonal changes. The time-consuming process of gathering and preparing the material, hand-building the work by coiling the clay, then applying finishing touches like pinching the soft clay to create corrugated surfaces, all resonated with him. Some of his favorite pieces include large Acoma pottery, fired in pits to create thin, lightweight pots, beautifully painted with brushes made from yucca plants.

The arrival of the Spanish changed everything, introducing new materials like wool--indigenous artisans previously used cotton--and new purposes for objects, including cotton and wool serapes that became dyed wool blankets for covering walls and floors. Ceramic pieces like Acoma and Zuni pottery became more decorative and intricately designed, their surfaces finely finished and painted to make them more attractive to collectors and traders, a process that accelerated with the arrival of the railroad and trading posts in the late 19th century.

Inter-tribal marriage and trading brought variations in themes that impacted the work of different regional groups. During the 20th century, Native American innovators like Pueblo artist Maria Montoya Martinez (see her Art Deco-esque black burnished clay pot circled with repeating abstract feather forms) and Hopi artist Iris Nampeyo (see her painted bowl with its avant-garde bird image) spearheaded movements to revitalize and modernize traditional art forms.

Yet the most startling objects in this section are the large Navajo wool blankets, rugs and serapes lining the gallery walls. Dating mostly from the early 20th century, they have a jazzy, dynamic energy that echoes the culture of the time. Many are complex in composition, with complete or fragmented forms and an array of imagery. Together, their large-scale and vigorous abstract patterning in bold contrasting colors seems to vibrate or jab like bolts of lightning, playing off triangular border motifs, providing an electric contemporary aura.

The second Native American section covers the Great Plains and the West Coast from Northern California through British Columbia to the Arctic. Especially intriguing are the intricate, exquisitely detailed and defined basketry from peoples like the Haida, Tlingit, Pomo and Maidu on the Pacific Coast. The Pomo artistry is considered "the highest evolution of basketry," according to Moosman.

Imported beadwork on hide has been used for almost five centuries, and the level of artistry achieved is impressive. The Sioux, Nez Perce and other tribes set the standard, and their work had a far-reaching impact.

The mix in this section of the exhibit is filled with the unexpected: Carved, brightly painted wood masks with exaggerated features from the Pacific Northwest grab viewers' attention, along with an ingenious dual-purpose peace pipe/tomahawk of metal, wood, wire and hide--perfect for any eventuality that might arise during negotiations. Particularly beautiful are the argillite (a rare black slate) sculptures by Haida artists. Initially a gray stone, argillite transforms into a lush black high sheen when carved. Then there is the half-deflated, crumpled Eskimo baby garment made from weatherproof dried seal intestine, the consistency of onionskin paper.

Such cuteness is not a trait one finds in Papua New Guinea. For much of its history, warfare was endemic, and fearsome helmet masks and costumes made of raffia, clay, shells and feathers were the order of the day, along with shields and other implements of war. Objects of adornment made from shell, bone, teeth and boar tusks have an aggressive demeanor, as well as great beauty.

Boise collector Kellie Cosho collects both Melanesian and African artifacts and points out the prevalence of alternating beautiful and beastly subjects occurring in New Guinea culture. Penis sheaths made from gourds and studded with animal teeth reside beside statuesque plumes of lovely Bird of Paradise feathers. A carved, slithering crocodile on the prowl gazes hungrily at us sideways with its cowrie shell eyes.

The Papua New Guineans are also a culture with a flair for nonobjective art. An elaborately carved ceremonial shield from 1950 painted in reds, oranges and black is a web of complicated, symbolic abstractions that leaps from the wall, as do abstract paintings on grounds of soaked and pounded inner tree bark called tapa cloth. The dried, stiff tapa paintings are comprised of complicated abstract compositions rendered in earthy pigments, some divided into separate panels by subtle changes in design, others with a single composition of repeating forms or patterns. Unique, mesmerizing and donated anonymously, these paintings are reminiscent of 1970s postmodern paintings on tarp and other mundane supports.

Cosho has also been an avid collector of African art, and donated a number of objects she acquired there in the 1980s to the show. Much of it is invaluable since such pieces are no longer available due to political and social upheaval of the 1990s.

Surprisingly, despite the fact they are half a world apart, there are similarities between Melanesian and African artifacts. Africa's Kuba cloth abstractions have a striking resemblance to the Papua tapa paintings, and cowrie shells play a conspicuous role in the art of both cultures. In Africa, where the female subject and feminine beauty are more prominent than in the other cultures under consideration, the themes of rites-of-passage rituals often involve cowrie shell highlighting and decoration, whereas in Papua New Guinea, it has a more male/warrior connotation.

Likewise, the dual "beauty and the beast" aesthetic is just as intense in Africa as in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In Liberia and other African countries, the female mask with shells and accessories comprises a seductive aesthetic that influenced Western culture, while male masks and head pieces can be terrifying.

In 1959, Edward Steichen curated a famous photography exhibition called The Family of Man, which toured extensively. It had its critics, like Roland Barthes, who faulted the project for positing an "ambiguous myth of the human community" based merely on "human morphologies." Be that as it may, Origins deepens viewers' understanding of the "family of man" by identifying a cultural correspondence and kindred aesthetics underlying the obvious diversities.