Contemporary Native American artists face a strange dilemma. The same white race that tried to destroy them now wants to celebrate their dying culture--not to mention profit from it. Art that supposedly revives ancient Indian traditions, fulfilling the white buyer's expectations of what Indian art "should" look like, still fills galleries and souvenir shops all over the West. Market forces, conservative tribal politicsand federal laws all conspire to urge Native American artists to produce within accepted tastes--or be seen as pariahs by both mainstream and tribe.

To many younger Native American artists--most educated along with whites in public schools and universities--the idea of tailoring their art to fit the tastes of the conqueror is anathema. Like their white counterparts who currently dominate the art scene, artists of tribal descent want unrestricted freedom to explore the furthest extremes of the cutting edge, to express their unique obsessions and multiple facets, to be outspoken about issues like racism, environmental decay and the effects of popular culture, and to not be boxed in by the "Indian Artist" label.

Artists Who Are Indian, a new show wedged into an unused spot in the Native American Gallery of the Denver Art Museum, is a small but significant concession to Indian artists working in contemporary media. Though modest in size, the exhibition is an important adjunct to the Native American historical artifacts that surround it. Bently Spang, the show's Northern Cheyenne curator, wanted the sculptures, paintings and other forms on display to expand understanding of who Indian people are today. Though a bit on the conservative side (no urine-soaked crucifixes here), the selected artworks are richly rewarding, both in their beauty and in their challenging responses to life in the Nineties.

Many of the artists construct heart-wrenching images, but the champion soul-prodder is Blackfoot artist Ernie Pepion. Quadriplegic since a car accident in 1971, Vietnam vet Pepion paints expressionistic but representational canvases with the aid of a special arm brace and a motorized wheelchair. "Hogtied" is Pepion's electrifying painting of a bound Indian man, his limbs withered and twisted, wearing only a baseball cap with an eagle logo. This horrifying vision reflects both Pepion's physical disability and the fate of the urban Indian, powerless and despised in his own homeland. Another painting, "Back to Heaven," is described by the artist as an environmental piece. But the semi-allegorical image of a naked man rising from a wheelchair to walk on water toward his beloved speaks mostly of the passion of those who continue to strive and dream despite setbacks.

An installation by Seminole artist Charline Maxx Stevens re-deciphers the famous--and infamous--migrations of Native American tribes, viewing them as psychological "baggage," to use the trendy phrase. "My Baggage Series" is composed of four (a number of great importance to Native American religion) "pedestals" made of packing crates and battered, vintage suitcases. Each suitcase becomes an assemblage comprising found and constructed objects. One composition features plastic toy Indians mired in greenish gunk; another suitcase expresses finality by being strapped and chained tightly shut. One, labeled "History," holds a mask of a real Indian face wearing a blindfold. The fourth suitcase, "Excavation," cradles a nightmarish clot of tree branches, membrane, mud and wire. Resembling funerary remains, this last, ghastly object is hypnotic, calling up chilly thoughts about grave robbers, the U.S. government and lost loved ones.

It's impossible to do justice to the exceptional quality of these ten artists' works in such a short space. Standouts include Jesse Cooday, whose silkscreens of TV cowboys expose the inherent bigotry of those American heroes. "Wayne's World" quotes a racist remark made by John Wayne below a portrait of the actor. Joe Fedderson's cerebral encaustic/mixed-media pieces and Susan Stewart's densely imaged oil paintings present scrupulously modern surfaces but communicate ancient concerns.

This year-long exhibit will change artists in July, giving Denver viewers a chance to see more Indian artwork that doesn't fit the stereotype. The current show promises an interesting--and enlightening--future.

Artists Who Are Indian, through January 29, 1995, at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-2295.


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