Successful artists never work without audiences. Yet audiences are fickle, shifting their attentions based on the evolving sensibilities and interests of curators, scholars and art patrons. The Sun Valley Center for the Arts show "Album: Shifting Native Stories" means to consider the "interwoven issues of assimilation, identity, influence and innovation" among Indian artists. The SVCA succeeds, as it always has, by picking the high cotton in the contemporary art world, and bringing it to Blaine County. But the show has a tendentious quality that is hard to nail down.
Perhaps it is best defined by artist Marie Watt's reflection on the show: "What I like about it is that anyone coming in here wouldn't assume that any of us are Indian." Indeed, while Watt continues to cut a path of conceptually rich and approachable work within the art world, Anne Appleby's minimalist encaustic paintings are about as recognizably "native" as Madame Curie's physics are recognizably French. Maybe this is the point of the show, and what we are to learn from the Sun Valley Center about the current state of Indian art. Even the turn-of-the-century baskets made by extraordinarily skilled and anonymous Alaskan natives were woven with European design motifs to catch the eye of Russian tourists.
Is the door finally closing on the assimilation of Indian artists? Though the SVC never really comes out and tells us what is shifting where and why, it is apparent that the SVCA gallery curators' interests lie more within the conventions of contemporary art-making than in presenting the provocative history of native artistic expression. Don't go looking for quill work, feathers or cultural baggage. If you want something with more grit and history, you'll have to drive to Hailey and the SVCA's south valley location, where the work of Boise State photography professor Larry McNeil is on display.
In the show description for "Keet H'it Killer Whale House," McNeil quotes fellow indigenous artist Hulleah Tsihnahjinnie, who said, "It is essentially a radical political act for an indigenous person to exist at the start of the 21st century." McNeil's autobiographical collages using archival family photographs, tribal motifs and journal entries never shy away from this notion, presenting unromanticized tableaux from his own family history, both Tlingit/Nisga'a and European, that somehow balances the crushing history of native subjugation, racism and forced dislocation, with the rather dark history of his ancestors' warlike Northwest coast tribe. The result is beautiful, unflinching and positively ironic. McNeil's family village was called Kincolith, or "Place where our enemies skulls are buried," which he refers to in a piece featuring a collection of human skulls called "Home Sweet Home."
The artist's good sense of humor seems to be a compass by which to navigate the complex and often ironic role Indians find themselves in at this point in history: as both specimen of and participant in the dominant culture. McNeil gives a feel for how to stay on top of it all by turning the T.V. kitsch of the Lone Ranger's Tonto into an erudite commentator who calls bullshit on Edward Curtis for staging all those Western photographs of "vanishing tribes" for art lovers back East while the machine of cultural genocide pushed further and further westward.
McNeil reminds us that while Indians may never shed stereotypes completely, often playing them up for effect, the antidote is to get personal. Artists, like people everywhere, become more interesting as they become more specific and subjective.
"Shifting Native Stories" will be at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, 191 5th St. E., Ketchum, through October 27.
Larry McNeil's "Keet H'it, Killer Whale House" will be at the Sun Valley Center for Arts Hailey extension, 314 Second Ave. S., Hailey, through October 27.