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Native Anew

Contemporary Indian works get the spotlight in an enormous show at the Tucson Museum of Art

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Sonya Kelliher-Combs doesn't have to venture too far into the wild to collect her artist materials.

After getting her MFA at Arizona State University, she's now back in her native Alaska. There, she can much more easily get the walrus stomachs and porcupine quills that she needs for her edgy sculptures.

"Guarded Secrets," 2005, is a collection of tubular stomach parts, bristling with sharp quills. Shaded in delicate ambers and coppers, with sharp black tips topping the white quills, it's piled on a pedestal in Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation, the enormous show of contemporary Northwest and Pacific Indian works at the Tucson Museum of Art.

The piece embodies numerous influences all at once. An Arizonan might be inclined to see it as an assemblage of prickly cactus parts, alluding to the artist's years in the desert, and serving, maybe, as a metaphor of psychic alienation. A Native Alaskan might meditate on the place of the walrus and the porcupine in traditional life. And an urban hipster will relish the artist's daring to declare these animal parts to be art.

Like most of the 125 artists in this sometimes overwhelming traveling show, Kelliher-Combs operates on multiple cultural levels. She grew up Native American in Bethel, a remote river settlement in the southwestern corner of Alaska, best known for an annual dogsled race and a traditional dance festival. But she lives in the big city of Anchorage now, and she traveled far for her education.

At art school in Fairbanks and then in Tempe, she doubtless was steeped in the contemporary dogma that art can be anything you want it to be. She's taken to heart the idea that any materials--not just conventional oils or marble or clay--can be turned into art. But she's given that idea a radical twist: At the same time that they're cutting-edge, her walrus stomachs and quills honor her heritage.

"The artists are engaged in their cultural histories," write the curators, Ellen Napiura Taubman and David Revere McFadden, who put this show together for the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. "But their art transcends geography and tribal affiliations."

In other words, don't expect to see the traditional carved totem poles, so identified with Northwest Indians, or beaded moccasins or woven baskets or repetitive painted motifs of dancers or deer. Changing Hands has all the media you'd expect to find in a major contemporary show. It's a little low on photography, and it has few--if any--paintings on canvas, but it's got plenty of metal, videos, cloth, mixed media of all kinds, and installation.

But it also has elk antlers (George Blake's carved "Boot"), tanned deerskin (Emil Her Many Horses' tribute piece "9/11 Tipi") and reservation dirt, embedded into Peter Morin's "Dirt Jacket." And nearly every piece of art makes an allusion to being Indian.

Preston Singletary's "Shaman's Amulet," 2001, for instance, is emblazoned with 3-D images of eyes, faces and feathers that you'd expect to see on a traditional Northwest Indian wood carving. But Singletary is a Seattle artist, where glass is king, and he trained at the famous Pilchuck Glass School. His amulet is rendered not in wood and paint, but in sleek, ice-blue glass.

In an artist's statement, he notes that glass updates old-time Indian trade beads, but he sees no reason to be hemmed in by stereotypes or expectations. "It is important to realize that Native cultures are alive," he writes, "and it is we who are declaring who we are and what new traditions are developing."

When artists do turn to the time-honored materials--like those trade beads--they use them ironically. Santa Fe artist Teri Greeves, born on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, stitched a zillion navy blue glass beads to a pair of store-bought high-top sneakers with red laces. Like her foremothers, Greeves must have used all her patience and dexterity to do the fine beadwork, but she has no interest in sewing those beads to a traditional dress. After all, Indians are wearing high-tops nowadays, not deerskin.

Lisa Telford, another native Alaskan, who now lives in Washington State, uses red cedar bark and guinea feathers in her wittily titled "A Night on the Village." She's woven these old-time materials into a modern-day bustier, a perfect (if uncomfortable) evening costume for a Native woman occupying a psychic space somewhere between the rez and the big city.

But the artists also draw on mainstream pop culture. Californian Gerald Clarke's board game "Ethnopolopy," a take-off on Monopoly, acerbically decrees, "White players go first." Doug Coffin, a Kansan who now lives in New Mexico, embeds clips from old cowboy-and-Indian movies into the head of his painted "Cigar Store Indian," 1998.

The New York curators have an odd sense of geography. A sequel to Changing Hands 1, a show on Southwest Native American art that turned up at TMA in 2002, this one covers the West, Northwest and Pacific, which means it also extends to Hawaii. I'm not sure how much cultural connection Hawaii has with the mainland, but it's fun to see work so little-known here.

Kapulani Landgraf has made a delicate sculpture, "Make i ke kai hohonu (Death in the Deep Sea)," 2001, out of black-and-white photos wrapped in barkcloth, along with fishhooks and red volcanic cinders. The ghostly figure, surrounded by fishhooks, recalls old-time death caskets, Landgraf writes, and the string of hooks is meant to reach back to the ancestors. But the work also has a contemporary intent: With headlines embedded just under the surface, and a sharp hook serving as a tongue, the work calls for "Hawaiian people to speak out" about the injustices they've suffered.

Fellow Hawaiian Puni Kukahiko has also made a political piece, but hers specifically skewers stereotypes about Hawaiian women. "Lovely Hula Hands," 2005, is a work in chocolate, in which a half-dozen identical chocolate "hula girls" gyrate bare-breasted on a glass cake stand. The women are "exotic, erotic and for the conquering," Kukahiko notes. In modern promotions of Hawaii, hula girls devolve into sexy playthings to promote tourism, and authentic Hawaiian dance is diminished into entertainment.

The well-known James Luna, a Californian, also contributes a provocative piece about the images of Indians. His performance piece, "Take a Picture With a Real Indian," 1991, captured on video, shows him cavorting on pedestal in a gallery. Critiquing the long tradition of outsiders turning their gaze--and their cameras--on Indians, the exotic Others, he exhorts his viewers again and again to take his picture. He's not an ornamental vestige of the past. He's real; he's here, and he's now.

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