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Breaking the Mold

With all the excitement -- and criticism -- caused by the unveiling of Daniel Libeskind's Frederic C. Hamilton Building, the inaugural exhibits installed inside have gotten lost in the crossfire. Now that the smoke is beginning to clear and it's Thanksgiving week, I thought it would be a good time to look at Breaking the Mold: The Virginia Vogel Mattern Collection of Contemporary Native American Art, in the Martin & McCormick Gallery on level two of the Hamilton, which is accessed just off the Atrium.

This gorgeous exhibit was organized by Native Arts curator Nancy Blomberg together with associate curator Polly Nordstrand. The two selected more than 100 objects from Virginia Vogel Mattern's collection of more than 300 pieces. Like the collection itself, the exhibit is mostly ceramics done by members of northern New Mexico tribes. Nearly everything in the show was created during the last ten years or so, though historic pieces are also included.

The backstory of Breaking the Mold begins some years ago, when Mattern, who lives in Connecticut, became friends with Denver Art Museum trustee Nancy Lake Benson over a shared interest in the Southwest. In 1999, Blomberg and museum director Lewis Sharp were invited to visit Mattern, who had built a private museum for her collection next to her house. Sharp and Blomberg hoped that at some point the DAM would acquire the works, and in 2003 Mattern turned her cache over, filling a void of current material in the history-heavy Native Arts department.

Mattern had assembled the collection with breathtaking speed, buying her very first piece in 1992 on a trip to Santa Fe. It was a miniature jar by Delores Curran. Given this fact, it makes sense that Breaking the Mold begins with miniatures installed in showcases just inside the entrance to the Martin & McCormick. "Miniatures" is the first of a half-dozen sections that make up the show. The pots on display are technically remarkable, because despite their small size -- they're each under three inches in height -- they have all the charisma of their much larger siblings.

Miniature pots are interesting because they were first created more than a century ago for the sole purpose of being purchased by non-Indian collectors. Traditional Indian pottery was either utilitarian or ceremonial, whereas the miniatures were made to be decorative. Mattern was attracted to them because she could create an entire collection and display it on a shelf or two. She bought more than fifty miniatures in just a few years, then turned her attention to full-sized examples.

The section immediately adjacent to "Miniatures" in Breaking the Mold is "Faces and Figures," which is given over to pots and statuettes that reference animals and people. One interesting piece among many is Barbara and Joseph Cerno's jar from 1999, which is decorated with a passenger train and a freight train running around the waist of the pot. Also compelling is the very modernist "Open the Canyon/Let Us Fish," a vessel covered with cubist fish done in sgraffito. It's unforgettable.

Things really get rolling with "Innovators," in which Blomberg and Nordstrand have assembled some of the show's most radical pieces. A coiled and pierced jar by Hubert Candelario, housed in a showcase in the middle of the room, is a major eye-catcher. Candelario cut holes of various sizes in the sides of his pot so that it would hold nothing but air. It's kind of post-modern in the way it violates the functionality inherent in a jar. Going against the grain of tradition in a different way is Virgil Ortiz's "Diva," from 2001. Ortiz updated Cochiti figures to include a depiction of a woman in an evening gown wearing dinner-length gloves. Interestingly, the nineteenth-century dolls on which it is based were also whimsical and non-reverential.

Just ahead is "Continuity and Change in Two Families," a comparison of the multi-generational works by the Tafoya family of the Santa Clara Pueblo and the Nampeyo family, who are Hopi. Southwestern pottery is often a family tradition, and specific styles are handed down from parents to children. Both of these families' traditions can be traced back to matriarchs Sara Fina Tafoya and Nampeyo, who were stylistic leaders in Southwestern ceramics a century ago. Mattern was interested in tracing back family lineages in ceramics, and in some cases she was able to include the work of five generations of artists. As a result, historical objects outnumber contemporary pieces in this part of the exhibit.

The curators slice up the collection in a variation of the two-families approach, creating a parallel display titled "Three Communities of Artists," which is the second-to-last section in a series that examines the Zuni, Navajo and San Ildefonso ceramic traditions. The installation in this area is a little confusing, and you have to make a point of proceeding to the San Ildefonso section, which is hidden from the Zuni and the Navajo displays. Be sure to find the out-of-this-world jar from the 1930s by Tsayutitsa, which is decorated with geometric motifs and depictions of deer and birds. Tsayutitsa lived at the Hopi Pueblo and was viewed as a master potter in the early twentieth century. This part of the show also has a group of photos of the famous Maria Martinez at work as part of the San Ildefonso presentation.

Mattern obviously had equal parts enthusiasm and money, and for years she attended various Indian markets and acquired the finest pieces available. She was avid in her pursuit, sometimes getting in line at 2 a.m. since sales were on a first-come, first-served basis. Mattern went even further, tracking down prize-winning pieces from the past. Many of her acquisitions are displayed in the "Prizewinners" section, including Lucy Martin Lewis's cream-colored jar decorated with tiny bear paws, from 1962, and Garnet Pavatea's 1974 red, black and white jar that is covered with geometric decorations.

In 1925, the DAM became the first art museum in the country to collect American Indian art, and the booty today numbers some 16,000 objects. With the Mattern horde, it surveys not only the history of the region's indigenous people, but their current artistic life as well -- and that's something we can all give thanks for.

Riffing off the dark side of Thanksgiving -- the mistreatment of the Indians -- is never far out of mind when the topic is Native Americans. And at 7 p.m. on Friday, November 24, there will be a candlelight vigil commemorating the victims and survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre, which occurred on November 29, 1864. That day, Colonel John Chivington and a band of 1,000 volunteers from Denver slaughtered 150 men, women and children who had been living peacefully in Chief Black Kettle's Southern Cheyenne village situated along the Big Sandy Creek, just east of town. The somber remembrance will take place at the DAM's most noticeable example of contemporary American Indian art: "Wheel," a 48-foot-in-diameter installation by Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds that is made of steel and red enamel panels and resides on the lawn of the Gio Ponti/James Sudler building (now known as the North Building).

With the Cheyenne being essential to the story, it's also relevant to check out Cheyenne Visions II, installed in the main American Indian galleries in the Ponti/Sudler building. Curated by Gordon Yellowman Sr. and Native Arts department head Blomberg, the show is an educational outing that includes photos by the DAM's Bill O'Connor depicting Cheyenne objects from the permanent collection, along with statements from the tribe's elders. After closing on December 31, the show will travel to various Cheyenne communities.

If you're one of those who, like so many of us, have out-of-town guests hankering for something to do this weekend, I recommend these uniquely Denver experiences at the DAM. A trip to the museum sure beats battling the crowds at the malls, and admiring the works of American Indian artists is more in keeping with the story of the first Thanksgiving.


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