Artists Who Are Indian, the year-long exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, showcases strong new works of art, some exploring vital spiritual issues and all produced by living Native Americans who reject artistic stereotypes for the freedom--and equality--of the cutting edge. The seventeen contemporary pieces assembled for the show's second half (July through January, 1995) depart sharply from traditional Native American art, employing styles and media customarily seen in white-walled galleries rather than hanging from a saddle or decorating a shield. Though vastly different from each other, these Indian-made paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and photographs still share a few common threads.

Among those threads are the spirits of revered Native American ancestors. While the works selected for the first half of the exhibit focused on political content, the most eye-catching works this round involve funerary remains, sacred objects and the history of loss that sadly characterizes tribal groups. (It was only four years ago that Congress finally passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which mandates that museums return sacred objects to their tribes of origin and seeks to control illegal trafficking in Indian artifacts.)

A direct link to burial rituals is presented in the large, medicine-wheel-like installation by Inupiat/Eskimo artist Susie Bevins, aka Oimmiqsak. "Worship Unto Death" consists of a partial circle of river rocks surrounding some upended wooden crates, a kind of improvised altar that holds items of mystical significance, especially a pair of carved wooden hands echoing a design found in many tribes. Totemic driftwood sculptures resembling birds and their nests also occupy the sacred space within the circle; an arrangement of skulls and crossed bones emphasizes the macabre. Among the native paraphernalia and physical remains appear incongruous symbols of modern life: a smiley face carved on a pelvic bone, a radio vacuum tube and a bottle of Half-and-Half bourbon. Even with these unlikely objects, the circle exerts a powerful spiritual influence--it's impossible not to feel a chill while viewing it.

Faye Heavyshield's skeletonesque sculptures, "Heart, Hoof, Horn," also refer to symbols of death--e.g., the bony remains of slaughtered buffalo. A Blood from Canada, Heavyshield transforms three familiar images from Native American art into grist for the avant-garde. Made of plaster and tinted gesso, the basketball-size sculptures inhabit the floor like sun-scrubbed animal remains found in the desert--but obviously, uncannily unreal. The scale is inflated, the details blurred--not unlike the romanticized version of tribal cultures the civilized world exploits--while the truth of Native American victimization is erased from the collective mind.

More skeletal remains appear in Nez Perce/Cayuse P.Y. Minthorn's monotypes "Bones Holding Themselves Up" and "Speaking With Words of Stone." These intense black-and-white works on paper, one of a stack of bones, one of a skull and stones, bring to mind the crafty naivete of neo-expressionism. But the special relationship between Native American religion and the spirits of the dead is succinctly evoked in the eerie pieces: The skulls, bones and stones pictured almost seem to speak--as many Native Americans believe they would if shown the proper reverence.

Winnebago Truman Lowe's "Feather Basket" seems at first to have more to do with humble, earthy crafts than with the spirit world--but a closer look reveals deeper meanings. A hemispherical willow basket is hung high in the air--in the same way Indian bodies were oftentimes placed on high basketwork scaffolding after death. The contents of the basket (angelic white feathers) could easily represent departed souls caught in midflight. Lowe's use of buckskin thongs adds an element of real bodily remains to a subtle and beautiful sculpture.

Artists Who Are Indian highlights talented artists who live in the present while preserving the past. Their history, and the vanished souls who made it, are well worth translating into the language of modern art.

Artists Who Are Indian, through January 29, 1995, at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-2793.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Hart Hill