Visual Arts

"POP! Pop Culture in American Indian Art" blends Warhol and Spider-Man with Ceramics and Beadwork

When author Sherman Alexie read from his latest novel, War Dances, to a sold-out crowd at the Heard Museum last fall, he ranted about technology, specifically Amazon's Kindle and some trouble his outspokenness about the gadget had caused him recently. Alexie, who presents more as a stand-up comic than as a writer, favors F-bombs over literary allusions and is more apt to speak about socioeconomics and literacy among children than to send ominous messages about what it means to be native in the 21st century.

And you won't find Alexie promoting some noble romanticism inherent to native-ness, either. Instead he will split your side with stories about Squodka, a Squirt/vodka cocktail his dad used to drink (when we know damn well we should not be laughing at alcoholism on the reservation). In fact, with that trademark outspokenness, Alexie pokes fun at the Heard and its pots and blankets. And, naturally, he pokes fun at us for gawking at artifacts while ignoring the Indian.

Nothing new here. Several years ago, former New Times staff writer Sarah Fenske wrote about the Heard's ongoing efforts, with varying degrees of success, to get its edge on without alienating its fan base — museum-goers eager for katsinas and seed beads in the galleries and gift shop alike ("Off the Reservation," April 20, 2006). And this just in: The museum has received a grant for a new bookstore and coffee bar, scheduled to open in early 2011, which means more space in which to sell fine, authentic Native art and jewelry and, surely, more magical moments in that bucolic, arched courtyard.

We arrive with programmed expectations. We come to ethnographic museums to see tools and crafts, things used and made by a remote version of ourselves with whom we've lost all connection. Appreciating a native people's ingenuity and artistic expression with walrus sinew won't erase years of oppression and marginalization, but we sure feel more connected to our own human race. We love Hopi katsinas, squash blossom necklaces, and Inuit textiles! We wouldn't expect to see Beckett staged at a Suns halftime show any more than we'd expect to see a Warhol or a Lichtenstein hanging in the Heard's Crossroads Gallery.

But then again, why not?

Even if one of the Heard's current exhibitions, "POP! Popular Culture in American Indian Art," doesn't work on every level, it makes perfect theoretical sense. If an artifact is a thing crafted by a human for a specific purpose, and Pop Art is, more or less, a reaction to or a representation of things and images from popular culture, then the best Pop Art is ethnographic in the most immediate way. In its mission statement, the Heard promotes the presentation of first-person voices, from the ancestral to the contemporary. Well, you might not find the contemporary in the ancestral, but you'll almost always find the ancestral in the contemporary — at least in the native Pop Art shown here. It's so good that it doesn't need contextualizing. The other Pop elements are interesting, but ultimately, patronizing.

The connection between mainstream Pop Art and American Indian Pop Art is a sort of six degrees of separation starring Fritz Scholder (who was one-quarter Luiseno but didn't grow up Indian), a sometimes Arizona art-scene fixture. He studied under Wayne Thiebaud in their Sacramento City College days. Thiebaud, along with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, are tied to Pop Art's most inaugural moment in the early '60s. Scholder went on to teach at the IAIA in Santa Fe, where he introduced students to the works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

In fact, in 1982, Andy Warhol painted portraits of Scholder, who exhibited in New York City in the '70s. The result, a characteristic Warhol acrylic pairing, hangs here next to a 1978 Scholder lithograph, Happy Skies to You. Warhol's Scholder meets viewers' gazes with dilated woundedness. Scholder's Roy Rogers meets viewers with that symmetrical cowboy grin, the teeth being the only swath of canvas left unpainted. This is the only Scholder in the show, yet there are more Warhols than walls in the exhibition space.

Among the familiar are a 1978-79 Campbell's Soup Can and 1966's Velvet Underground & Nico album cover, Peel Slowly and See. (Native artist Hoka Skenadore's very cool mixed-media work explains the presence of this and other album cover art in the show. Skenadore uses 331/3 RPM record albums as canvases and paints directly on or collages them, incorporating press type and old issues of National Geographic.) Among Warhol's less familiar images are his silkscreens Kachina Dolls and Indian Head Nickel from a 1980s series of prints he based on American Indian icons. Each Warhol attempts to serve as half of a conversation with a native artist.

In his Sheep Is Good Food, up-and-comer Ryan Singer speaks to Warhol's tomato soup with mutton stew as he translates Campbell's "mmm, mmm good" slogan into Navajo. Campbell's fleur de lis border at the bottom of the can becomes arrowheads in Singer's acrylic version, but the stylings are subtle, as Singer sticks to traditional red and white. Vinyl sticker and T-shirt versions of Singer's mutton stew (along with other popular images, like his seriously hilarious "Wagon Burner" and robot graphics) are available on the artist's website — — and in the IAIA and Navajo Nations Museum gift shops. Art doesn't get more "first person" than Ryan Singer's.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tricia Parker
Contact: Tricia Parker