'Larger Than Memory' is larger than life at Phoenix museum
Sandra Hale Schulman
Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
After months of being closed due to the pandemic, the Heard Museum has reopened in a big way with its largest exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art in the museum’s 90-year history.
"Larger Than Memory: Contemporary Art From Indigenous North America" encompasses nearly 13,000 square feet and spans four ground floor gallery spaces. Organized by Fine Arts Curator Erin Joyce and Chief Curator Diana Pardue, the exhibit brings together many of the biggest Native artists working today for a knockout show that spans the past two decades.
It opened Friday and runs through Jan. 3.
"Larger Than Memory" sets the pace right at the show's entrance with a giant soft sculpture of traditional earrings by Eric Paul Reige, Diné, titled "jaatłoh4Ye’iitsoh no. 1–6." Translated as “Earrings For Big God,” these mammoth works hanging from the double-height atrium ceiling make visitors do a double-take, as the familiar forms of the delicate bone, turquoise and beaded jewelry are rendered in an impossibly large size.
Made with store-bought materials and embellished with the artist's own hair, the commissioned works continue a dialogue started by Yayoi Kusama, who originated soft sculpture in the '60s.
The Diné tradition of raising sheep and weaving wool connects Reige with his ancestors and brings that tradition into the modern art world that he believes should be communal. At just 26, he is the youngest artist in the show.
The theme continues into the main room as the sheer size of the artworks defines the concept; these are museum-size pieces by a confident, disparate group working at the top of their game.
Cannupa Hanska Luger, Lakota/Mandan/Arikara/Hidatsa, worked with Kathy Elkwoman Whitman to create a striking sculpture, "This is Not A Snake, The One Who Checks, The One Who Balances," of two crochet-clad figures with white wool braids and feathered headgear, attacking a snake made of rubber truck tires and black and white oil drums bound in barbed wire. The intentions are many – the fight of Indigenous tribes against the oil and mining industry, animal spirit figures taken over by dark forces.
Jeffrey Gibson, Choctaw, presents a pop tribal painting, "Brighter Days," framed by immaculate colored beading. It may take some time to read the words he embeds in the gorgeous geometric colors, but the secret message can be interpreted as a religious prayer of the downfallen or the simple pleading of a child.
A multitude of stories play out in the large painting by Kent Monkman, Cree, titled "Miss America." A cargo culture riot has washed up on possible Mayan shores, with Inca princesses riding alligators and a Mohawked Native embracing a black-robed priest. A posse of militant Natives riding shotgun and holding shotguns in red pickup trucks barrels into the crowd while railroad tracks are being laid, and nature in the form of coyotes, snakes and enormous turtles take in the show. With a wild mashup of colonization, sexuality, loss and resilience told in the uber-traditional format of old world painting, Monkman makes his serious mark on the complexities of the historic and contemporary Indigenous experience.
The Heard has made a new acquisition of another Monkman work, "Danaë Receiving the Golden Rain," displayed in a kind of sacred glory in its own black-painted room in another section of the museum.
Another artist the Heard has acquired, photographer Cara Romero, Chemehuevi, exhibits a triptych of "Indian Canyon," "Kiyanni" and "No Wall" that finds some free-spirited children defiant in the brilliant desert landscape. These intriguing political but playful images were blown up to billboard size and exhibited as part of the ambitious Desert X show two years ago in California's Coachella Valley.
Brad Kahlhamer has serious art-world cred beyond the Native art world, as he has been exhibiting his edgy Native-punk-meets-pop work since the '90s in numerous museums, galleries and art fairs internationally. His watercolor and painting work here is from a show he did at the experimental Loom Theater Gallery in Gallup, New Mexico, last year.
ArtNet critic Walter Robinson says Kahlhamer’s “melding AbEx (abstract expressionism) with Native American imagery is a unique way of putting content in abstraction and a citation of elemental human mark-making i.e. Indian 'war paint,' though these days when it comes to 'Indian lore,' who knows what’s real and what’s legend.“
Kahlhamer will have a solo show, "Swap Meet," at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in October 2021.
Other notable works include the C. Maxx Stevens installation "Last Supper," which makes a frothy white comment on nutrition as it pertains to hardcore reservation diets; the pink-tongued wolf of Marie Watt’s "Companion Species (Field)" reclines on a bed of patched woolen blankets, an unusual canvas for this supine canine; while Nanibah Chacon’s "What Dreams Are Made Of" cruises across the wall with a black lowrider festooned with roses, a sleek NDN car for the last ride.
"'Larger Than Memory' comes at a pivotal time in the global contemporary art world,” said Heard Museum Dickey Family Director and CEO David Roche. “The exhibition recognizes and presents artists working at the top of their field, across a variety of mediums; artists that are engaging with critical dialogues that touch all of our lives. The Heard is honored to present the work of these creatives and be a leader in conversations regarding representation, identity and the environment.”
Mention must be made of the show's fully illustrated catalog. The oversized and slickly designed work features essays by the curators and an opening poem by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, Muscogee Creek.
Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and has produced three films on Native musicians.
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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of "Kiyanni" and the artist who created "Last Supper."