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‘Spirit of Creation’ exhibit blends cultural roots with the avant-garde

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Like all artists, Native Americans merge tradition with the avant-garde, often in a complex synthesis extending far beyond stereotypes.

“Spirit of Creation,” a 16-piece exhibition on view in the Angelique + Jim Lowry Gallery of the Albuquerque Museum, showcases works by some of the most prominent names in 20th and 21st century art. That they happen to be Native is visible in the strong cultural roots of their aesthetic.

“Buffalo Dancer in New Mexico,” 1975, by Fritz Scholder (Luiseño), color lithograph on paper. (SOURCE: The Albuquerque Museum)

One of the most seminal American artists of the 20th century, Fritz Scholder (Luiseño) rose to stardom through images of his people in a pop-meets-expressionism style. At the time, his approach ignited controversy because it shattered the boundaries of how “Indians” were expected to be depicted. The exhibit features Scholder’s “Buffalo Dancer in New Mexico,” a 1975 color lithograph on paper.

“It doesn’t look like Native American art,” curator Andrew Connors said.

“It looks like an abstract expressionist painting. He got a lot of criticism because he was really breaking with the Santa Fe Indian School.”

Santa Fe Indian School teacher Dorothy Dunn insisted that her students paint Native American subjects in a flat-art style, which to her yielded authentic representations of Indian culture. While her teaching produced pioneering artists such as Pablita Velarde, Harrison Begay and Allan Houser, by the 1960s, some began rebelling against the style as too limiting.

Velarde’s daughter, Helen Hardin (Santa Clara), broke from her mother’s studio style of painting, introducing greater levels of abstraction verging on cubism. Her image of a traditional pueblo mythological figure in 1984’s “Spirit of Autumn” reveals her employing expressionistic pigment spattering as the backdrop for her meticulous line work.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Cree/Shoshone/Salish) combined collage with a maelstrom of images from Mesoamerican, Mimbres and Mexican culture in 2011’s “Earth People,” a four-color lithograph. A beetle descends into the ground or a sipapu, a frowning rabbit emerges from his den. The animals share the canvas with a pre-Columbian figure, a photograph of a Plains woman, some skulls and an abstracted Mimbres motif.

“She creates a much more global or hemispheric story,” Connors said.

At first glance, Fred Kabotie’s (Hopi) ink and wash drawing “Hopi Snake Dancers,” circa 1930s, appears to be a straightforward depiction of men preparing for a ceremonial dance. But the refined composition is complex, with its perspective maintained by rendering the front figures more darkly than those in the rear. Kabotie is legendary for essentially creating the Hopi’s signature overlay jewelry style.

Simon Tookoome’s “These shaman can do all sort of things,” circa the 1970s, shows figures channeling between animal dimensions as wolves and bears. An Inuit Renaissance man, the artist was both a skilled draftsman and printmaker, as well as a ceremonial elder. The serigraph presents the magical world of the shaman: part therapist, part priest, part doctor and intermediary between the material and spiritual worlds. They bring healing to their communities by delving into the psychic roots of reality, sometimes transforming themselves into creatures to rebalance life gone awry.

“Spirit of Creation” was curated by Titus O’Brien, the museum’s assistant curator of art.