"POP! Pop Culture in American Indian Art" blends Warhol and Spider-Man with Ceramics and Beadwork | Arts | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

"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...
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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 — www.ryansingerart.com — and in the IAIA and Navajo Nations Museum gift shops. Art doesn't get more "first person" than Ryan Singer's.

Pop Art conversations are between the artist and hyper-familiar objects and images — lowercase-"c" culture as depicted by and in the media. But in a classic example of diplomacy — like Diane Rehm politely cutting off an angry caller with a point — the museum seems to stop the conversation where it could turn really controversial. The important conversations here are not between Singer and Warhol or Jason Garcia and Roy Lichtenstein (whose 1963 Ben-Day dot lithograph, Whaam! — the original is in the Tate Gallery — is in the show).

Singer, who's also a talented classical portrait artist, is a Pop artist with a punk rock brushstroke and a lot to say. He should have more exposure here. You'll have to visit that web site to see his paintings depicting Indians as Playmobil or Fisher-Price "people" complete with hogan and sheep farm, or the "Land-O-Fakes" Indian maiden, or the Morton Salt girl as an old Native woman. What is not on exhibit — hot sex, Coors cans, anger, nihilism — speaks volumes. Where the Heard plays it safe, Singer is unafraid to mix metaphors. Seriously. See his online gallery.

You'll understand why the Campbell's Soup papery sheath, Souper Dress, standing on a mannequin near Singer's painting, is obvious and disappointing. Maybe it's supposed to anchor or contextualize the other fashion elements in the show. Some of those elements work, but mostly they're distracting. Paco Rabanne's 1967 kit for an assemble-it-yourself gold-disc party number on loan from PAM? Why? Virgil Ortiz's collaboration with Donna Karan, which resulted in Cochiti pottery patterns on Karan's fabrics that season, and a tuxedo jacket by Lloyd Kiva New for Hopi jewelry designer Charles Loloma mumble something here, but not enough to carry the center of the exhibit. And the pieces certainly aren't Pop Art.

White vinyl go-go boots from Japan are retro-fabulous and I want to put them on my feet, but they make no sense juxtaposed with Teri Greeves' exquisitely detailed seed-bead Chuck Taylors, We Gave Two Horses in Honor of Our Son. Greeves' adornment is all hand-stitched Kiowa tradition, and the message/medium disconnect leaves the viewer wondering about that honored son.

Basket weaver Lisa Telford has crafted both a pair of high heels and a bodice from red cedar bark and other materials, like cotton cordage, guinea feathers, leather, and carved-bone frog-button closures. The bodice, A Night on the Village, especially, earns its place in this show, displaying both the ancient and the contemporary in a costume a spiritually evolved and overly muscled Pop singer might wear.

The work of potters Diego Romero and Jason Garcia is among what works best here, though. Romero, whose work confronts the negative views toward Indian art as "craft," employs Greek imagery in the ancient amphora tradition that reflects native narratives. His sociopolitical Chongo Brothers characters walk and drive a desert landscape of solstices and comets in the night sky. Romero's bowls have both the bold graphic toughness of comic book art and a Keith Haring playful sensitivity.

Other than Singer's missing work, Garcia's ceramics are, perhaps, the most compelling. His hand-formed, slipped, and painted tiles offer a series of native peoples in traditional dress leaning against cars, licking lollipops, and talking on cell phones while casinos loom large in the background. In one titled Grand Theft Auto, Garcia confronts gang violence. Other tiles are fictitious comic books, like Tewa Tales of Suspense. Garcia adorns a traditional ceramic pot with superheroes — including Wolverine and Iron Man, a 10-year-old patron pointed out to me (where I only recognized Spider-Man and Wonder Woman).

Don't miss the metalwork and beadwork of Marcus Amerman, Coren L. Conti, and Cody Sanderson. It's all small and tucked in a corner display case but perfectly Pop. Sanderson's Lego jewelry and his Barrel of Monkeys belt buckle might tweak the way you think about native jewelry. It should, anyway.

The venerable Heard is a classy joint, no doubt. But I wish it had more faith in its patrons: Expect us to be mature enough to handle concrete controversy and smart enough to make connections without reliance on clever installation. The native Pop Art hanging here speaks for itself and, in speaking, says something ancient and new for all of us. We don't need Andy Warhol to translate.

Build more than a coffee bar, and we'll come. On the days I visited, viewers sure weren't lingering over the Pop artifacts like they were the silver seed pots in the Sandra Day O'Connor Gallery. Nobody's depicted a Twin Towers-less NYC skyline in a seed pot. Yet.

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