Off the Reservation

Joe Baker has been a painter for decades, but the canvas he works on today is bigger than most artists could ever dream of.

As a curator at the Heard Museum, a job he's held for nearly four years, Baker is charged with choosing the subject matter, and the pieces, for the museum's contemporary art shows.

Compared to the Heard's vast collection of Indian artifacts, the source of the museum's international reputation, Baker's shows take up a relatively tiny space. Still, their home, the Heard's infelicitously named Russ Lyons Realty Crossroads Gallery, is geographically front and center: To get to most places in the museum, you have to walk through it.

So the Heard's visitors have been forced to deal with Baker's vision, and forced to look at art that's modern and striking. More than anything, they're forced to confront the fact that Native Americans today are living and breathing, people affected by today's issues.

It's no wonder that Baker's recent exhibitions have been among the most talked about in the Valley. The Heard has been pushing the envelope, and those in the know uniformly credit Baker as the source of its daring. They praise him for taking on risky ventures, for debuting unknown artists, for introducing new ideas into the sometimes stodgy world of ethnographic museums.

But the show that Baker opened April 7 at the Crossroads Gallery, "Holy Land: Diaspora and the Desert," may be his most ambitious yet.

The concepts are intellectually tough.

And the art is . . . different.

The showiest pieces include a "tree house" composed of pieces of IKEA furniture, and an installation of Coleman coolers, stacked six coolers high and four coolers across.

There's also a trailer, packed with American kitsch. From the roof comes a cyclone of plastic butterflies. Their torsos are crucifixes, each complete with its own dying Jesus.

None of this would seem particularly edgy at, say, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), or one of the gritty galleries that open up for First Friday art walks.

But this is the Heard.

As one of the top places in the nation to see Native American artifacts and art, the Heard isn't just an institution -- it's a venerable one. School kids are bused here by the load. When First Lady Laura Bush gave an address in Phoenix last year, this was her chosen backdrop.

The Heard holds a respected place in the museum world and maintains strong ties with Native Americans. But among Phoenix's sneering intelligentsia, the museum sometimes gets dismissed as culture for tourists, Indian life for people who like Dances With Wolves. Like the First Lady, it's thoroughly respectable, studiously uncontroversial -- and, naturally, wildly popular with visiting Midwesterners.

People come here to see katsina dolls and woven baskets. They do not come for trailers and avant-garde tree houses. They do not, for the most part, come to be challenged.

Joe Baker wants to challenge them.

And that's not the only thing that makes this show shocking. The biggest surprise, to people who know the Heard, may well be the roster of artists featured in "Holy Land."

Most are not Native Americans.

There's an artist who was raised in Pakistan and moved to Boston; an artist from Nigeria; artists from Israel and Iran. While there's a Cherokee photographer, he has permanent resident status in Scotland. Another artist with Native American heritage is Canadian.

Indeed, the show features only one Native American who lives in the United States, Phoenix native Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie. Now living in Berkeley, California, her piece is a video shot in Palestine.

For the most part, the work isn't about Native Americans. It's about people being separated from their traditional home. It's about identity in a world filled with migration.

Joe Baker and the local co-curator he's brought on board for "Holy Land," Lara Taubman, know that this is both a big step for the Heard, and a risky one.

One week before the show is scheduled to open, they provide a tour of the space and talk about what they hope "Holy Land" will accomplish.

"This gallery is named Crossroads, and that fits," Baker says. "This is a bold step into the future, of how we present and discuss American Indian art --"

"And the American Indian in general," adds Taubman.

It's definitely bold, but it's no slam-dunk. Even before the show opened, "Holy Land" was raising real questions, albeit questions that have less to do with art than business.

Can a show this different fly at the Heard?

Can the snowbirds and tourists get something out of a show that's about a concept as nebulous as diaspora?

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske