Visual Arts

Native Gift

If you've lived in the Southwest for any amount of time, chances are you've already seen your fair share of howling coyotes, dream catchers and geometric pottery patterns. I grew up here — enough said. Popular Native American art is the backdrop for much of life in the Valley, blended into restaurant booth fabric and freeway dividers. To be honest, the thought of a retrospective exhibition featuring statues of naked Native American women and paintings of desert landscapes did not thrill me.

Traditional Native American art? Not interesting. A traditional Native American artist? Very interesting, as it turns out. At least it was in the case of Allan Houser, a Chiricahua Apache whose work is on display in a retrospective exhibition at the Heard Museum's north Scottsdale location.

Houser's pieces fill the gallery space with an impressive array of media, including bronze, stone, alabaster, tempera, and watercolor. Respite, a bronze sculpture of a Native American woman leaning back, arms clasped around her knees, is a familiar motif that Houser simplifies by rounding out the body's intricacies to create a smooth impression. Another work called Spirit House II is a tripod of harsh geometric bronze sheets that become a modernized mini tepee. Yes, these works are attractive and obviously rendered with great skill, but immediately fall into the "seen it a million times" category. This is art that belongs on a mantel or bookshelf — it's safe and non-offensive. That describes much of this show, which verges on cliché.

So what kind of artist was inspired to make this? It is the answer to this question that ends up saving the exhibition, because the curator, Tricia Loscher, successfully humanizes Houser by creating a character who really adored the artistic process and difficulty of creation. The Heard has been collecting Houser's works since 1948 and could've easily presented a show of only his greatest hits. But it was Loscher's choice to include Houser's early works and preparatory materials that successfully tells the story of an artist's life, career and personhood — and makes his work meaningful.

As the great-nephew of Geronimo, Houser had one hell of a family history to embrace, which led him to explore wider Native American heritage through his art. In spite of ample opportunity to focus on the plight of Native Americans, Houser made the conscious decision to create beautiful things — he didn't see the point of dwelling in the negative. Houser was born in 1914 in Oklahoma, and his life was filled with artistic creation and experimentation. With an early insatiable desire to draw, he eventually landed at Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico for formal art training. Throughout his life, he had a wide range of artistic interests, and even performed music for a Santa Fe radio show as a young man in the 1930s.

When I took the time to really study it, I realized that Houser's work does rise above the rest — truly beautiful, even though I may have seen something similar dozens of times before. His early work stands out the most — it has the charisma the others lack. Houser's 1940 tempera painting Apache Kid is titled after a historical figure of the 1880s whose life story included military battles, imprisonment in Alcatraz, and an elusive disappearance. Even though the work is naive, with its two-dimensional backdrop and clumsy hatch work, it reveals much about the young artist. Houser, having adopted "Apache Kid" as his radio name and subsequently creating a piece about this historical figure, shows an early curiosity deeply rooted in tradition and history.

A display case in the middle of the front gallery holds 1960s children's books illustrated by Houser when he taught Navajo students in Brigham City, Utah. The pen-and-ink drawings are jolly and cute — leaving the impression of an enthusiastic teacher. Looking at simple cartoon drawings next to his more mature and serious pieces exposes a temperamental range that many artists own, but is not always evidenced in exhibitions.

Throughout the gallery, the softened sound of Native American voices and flute music is heard from a television that plays the film Allan Houser Haozous: The Lifetime Work of an American Master. Produced by his son, it is a gushing portrayal of the man. At first, it's overkill — but watching Houser at his 80th birthday party, on stage with his cowboy hat (totally rocking the harmonica), I had affection for this grandfather figure. The final scene shows Houser's wife of more than 50 years, Anna Marie, walking through his sculpture garden. Allan died in 1994; Anna Marie believes that his presence can be felt through the 60 years of art that he left behind. The movie's saccharine flavor wasn't a complete turn-off — it's tough to disrespect a man with such an obvious passion for his life's work.

Another case that runs along the back wall of the movie room displays a number of Houser's sketchbooks. This part of the show is easily overlooked, but after seeing it, my entire perception of his works changed. The books provide a backstory and insight to this artist's mind that cannot be found in his sculpture alone. One sketch shows a crowd gathered around a statue. Houser's equal efforts can be seen in his rendering of both the sculpture and the smiling faces of its viewers. Suddenly, his overdone motifs didn't seem so ordinary. The viewer's reception was of great concern for Houser — this artist wanted to create things that made other people feel good, and that's why all his works are pretty and safe. Houser considered his viewers a part of his total art experience.

So most of the artwork itself may not passionately grab your attention, but the experience of a man who dedicated his life to this work will. This guy was optimistic, caring and passionate about his art, and as I left the show, I found myself having a mental conversation with Houser as if I knew him — a testament to the success of the exhibition.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi