Weaving a Story

Other fabulous rugs in this section highlight various regional styles among the Navajo. There's a spectacular "Gray Hills rug" woven in 1880 in an array of natural undyed wools. The name "Gray Hills" refers to the town of Gray Hills, New Mexico, and despite lore to the contrary, rugs in this style are not meant to depict actual hills. And an 1885 "Germantown Eye Dazzler," so named because the dark red, orange and gray yarns from which it was woven were manufactured in Germantown, Pennsylvania, sits around the corner from a 1945 "Crystal Trading Post rug" in undyed and aniline-dyed wool that was named for the shop near which it was made and to which it was originally sold.

Beyond an architectural element depicting a loom with a tarp shade are a series of showcases in which magnificent old Navajo jewelry is on display. Jewelry, like weaving, is an art form at which the Navajo have long excelled--they eventually gained a worldwide reputation for both--but unlike weaving, jewelry was traditionally done by men. McArthur has used the jewelry to indicate the change that occurred when the artifacts created by the Navajo went from being the stuff of barter to being an increasingly marketable commodity.

As depicted thoroughly in the DAM's Inventing the Southwest exhibit, the Harvey Company, a restaurant and hotel chain in the Southwest, sold and publicized Indian art in order to encourage tourism. The row of Plexiglas showcases outfitted with jewelry in the Spider Woman show leads the viewer to a section devoted to the Harvey Company's Cardenas Hotel, which formerly stood in Trinidad, Colorado. The hotel, seen in a photograph, was, tragically, demolished in the 1970s. McArthur has created a niche suggestive of the long-lost lobby, though the furniture and pottery used in her display did not come from the Cardenas. Real standouts here include David Moffat's monumental arts-and-crafts-style desk, and a breathtaking copper-and-mica chandelier. Unfortunately, identifying labels are too scarce in this section.

The last portion of Spider Woman demonstrates the effect of the dominant culture on the Navajo's weaving style. One of the oddest rugs in the exhibit is the circa-1960s "Yeibichal rug" done in the trendy colors of the period. "It shows how the Indian art market is driven by the tastes of the time," says McArthur. She has paired it with a traditional "Yeibichal rug" from 1935.

Spirit of Spider Woman at the Colorado History Museum is a fine first outing for curator Carolyn McArthur. It provides local viewers with the opportunity to further explore the striking visual traditions of the American Indian that continue to resonate in the contemporary art scene not just in Denver, but everywhere, which makes it easy to get caught up in it.

Spirit of Spider Woman, through August 8 at the Colorado History Museum, 1300 Broadway, 303-866-5299.

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