In Berlin Gallery's annual summer show, "Extraordinary Animals Revisited," more than a dozen artists conceive, in new and traditional ways, how animals relate to the world and to us and how our world relates to animals.
Coyote/trickster is everywhere. Native American myths teach us that an encounter with trickster changes us in some elemental way. The artists here, who continue to revisit one of art's age-old themes — animals — force such encounters.
Rick Bartow (Wiyot tribe of California), a painter, printmaker, and sculptor, recently was commissioned to create a 25-foot cedar sculpture for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. He's a big deal, and Berlin Gallery manages to represent the breadth of his many talents. Coyote + Leonardo's Anatomy 5 (graphite, gouache, and ink on paper) looks right at you. There are those yellow eyes and sharp snout, the most distinct features in the work. The rest of the animal appears slowly as faint graphite lines and white outlines, a sort of disembodied skeleton, which is exactly what it is, a human pelvis and femurs. Here, in his anagama-fired (a wood-fueled cave kiln) small ceramic sculpture Going Coyote and in a 12-by-9 acrylic on panel called Looking Dog, Bartow captures the canine form in all its awkward charm. Whether Looking Dog is just looking or assuming an attack pose, the blue border and chalky pinks and peaches of his limbs provide a colorful, almost childlike contrast to the sometimes scary faces in Bartow's work. He paints in part with his hands, and his fingers linger in his surfaces.
Locals Jacob Meders (Mechoopda Maidu tribe of Chico Rancheria, California), Tiffiney Yazzie (Navajo), and Steven Yazzie (Navajo/Laguna Pueblo), all represented by Berlin, show here. Meders, an MFA candidate at ASU, mainly is a printmaker, and that graphic influence is clear in the encaustics on wood he created for this show. Keeping in Line (1-38) is a series of small (5 inches by 7 inches), stark images of birds, some more fantastic and abstract than others, in landscapes of colorful pen-and-ink thick/thin lines.
Tiffiney Yazzie, a recent ASU grad, has the only photography in the show. Her small, meditative Vandyke prints Beginnings and Endings communicate big movement in partial flocks of birds high overhead that could be squadrons of bombers in loose formation. More, please!
Steven Yazzie's 47-square-inch oil canvas, The Visitor, depicts the coyote in his own realistic narrative on stylish patio furniture after having had his way with some carefully planted cacti. Yazzie's use of color and pattern match the humor of the work, carefully calculated. Yazzie is making interesting and beautiful animal-themed work, and it's too bad for visitors to the gallery that his ceramic sculpture of a jackrabbit, R 1, sold so early in the show. Gallery manager Andrea Hanley described the work as "very . . . jackrabbit-y." The ears themselves are almost vessels (see it, and all the show's works and more, online at www.berlingallery.org).
Hanley, who happily will pull work after work out of the gallery's flat files if you're interested, is enthusiastic about sharing everything she knows, and she can show more than what's hanging. If you've ever been snubbed at a gallery, Hanley may be the one to help you recover your will to try to purchase art again.
I asked whether she knew about the cathedrals in the striking monotypes of painter/printmaker Norman Akers (Osage Nation of Oklahoma). They look European, but Akers has overlaid animal — stag, turtle, crane — images, shapes, and silhouettes. Hanley e-mailed the artist and he quickly responded. The cathedrals are in Koln, Germany.
Revered artists like the late Fritz Scholder (Luiseno, California Mission tribe) and the late John Hoover (Caleut, Alaska) are represented, too. Hoover, who was one of the first Native artists to combine modern and traditional in a fluid way, is the sculptor behind Sea Weed People, which stands in the museum's courtyard fountain and was installed at the White House during the Clinton administration. Hoover's sculptures were used as gifts for visiting dignitaries during the Johnson administration. There are works here, too, by renowned sculptors Allan Houser and Doug Hyde.
And Berlin has balanced these big names with artists who pack real immediacy. Julia Buffalohead's (Ponca tribe, Oklahoma) paintings have titles like Some Do Shit Gold and Be in Vain. Buffalohead's coyotes wear skirts and lean upright against trees while raccoons apply lipstick and owls wear pearls. Her work is funny and sad, pink and provocative, sort of Fantastic Mr. Fox on canvas. America Meredith is a Cherokee painter who's interested in portraying Cherokee people in real time, as they look in this contemporary moment, but she recognizes part of that also means using a voice that speaks through tradition. Her electric work juxtaposes the two worlds and upsets the program a bit, as does much of the work in Berlin Gallery.
Other arts institutions could take a lesson from the Heard. The concept behind Berlin Gallery is terrific. Berlin is not actually located inside the museum. Instead, the 1,000-square-foot space is tucked into the back of the Heard Museum Store, where since 2006 it's become known for representing groundbreakers and masters of contemporary American Indian art. What's displayed is for sale — buy it and take it — and proceeds benefit individual artists and the Heard Museum's programs.
The theory that art should provoke isn't new. It's just managed to remain relevant. In the myths, trickster can be a creator as well as a causer of chaos, and the artistic voices in Berlin Gallery's sparkly gem of a show work in meta ways on both levels.