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Crow’s Shadow’s art of the land

By Bob Hicks
September 30, 2017
Culture, Visual Art

Ghost Camp, a four-piece suite of lithographs by James Lavadour from 2002, all but jumps off the wall as you wander through the generous new exhibit Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts at 25 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem. Lavadour prints and paintings have a way of leaping like that: they have what curators and dealers like to call “wall power.”

But something else is going on in this suite, too. In that familiar Lavadour way Ghost Camp is partly abstract and partly taken from the spacious hilly land of eastern Oregon and Washington near Pendleton, where he lives. A scrawl of lines seems almost arbitrary until you look a little closer and realize they are deft intimations of shapes on the horizon or buildings breaking up the open spaces. Searing streaks of color suggest trees, red and glowing and perhaps – who knows, in a runaway fire season like this one? – on the way to being charred.

James Lavadour (Walla Walla, b. 1951), “Ghost Camp,” 2002, ed. 16, suite of four, four-color lithographs with graphite pencil on Arches 88 white paper, 34 1/4 x 43 3/4 inches overall, CSP 02-114 a, b, c, d. Photo: Dale Peterson

Oh: and, sticking up from the top right print like a towering forest snag, the jagged teeth of a giant crosscut logging blade grind relentlessly at the sky. The suite is inspired by Lavadour’s memories of a forest he used to wander as a child – a forest that’s since been clear-cut, and essentially no longer exists. The lithographs are at once an honoring of the past, a preservation of history, a documentation of a present state of mind, an act of beauty, and a lament. The more you look the more you see; the more you see the more you feel.

Crow’s Shadow at 25 is about a lot of things, including the variety of expression in contemporary Native American art and the vigor and adaptability of the print medium itself. But one major theme is the land, and the land in peril, and the sense of loss that comes from witnessing such things as the disrupting by time and the human hand of the ordinary functions of the natural world. It’s a particularly Western American way of thinking about art – neither romanticized nor overtly pictorial or, for the most part, nostalgic, but keenly observed and deeply engaged.

Kay WalkingStick, (Cherokee, b. 1935), “Bitterroot Winter,” 2003, ed. 16, two-color linocut/lithograph on Rives BFK white paper, 17 1/4 x 30 inches, CSP 03-601. Photo: Dale Peterson

Here in the West the land continues to be of vital importance in a way that major urban art centers no longer fully understand or have long ago written off as unimportant, even as the uneasy connection between humans and their environment becomes perhaps the most crucial issue of the age. Here, in the open battlefields of the war between profit and nature, the physical matters, and is interwoven with the psychological and political and abstract. Many of the works here rise from the deeply rooted tradition of the land and the human race’s relationship to it, a subject that was swept away in the urban tide of twentieth century abstract modernism but whose time has come again, if it ever rightly left. Right now, in the throes of a reeling, unbalancing state of climate disruption, it seems one of the most contemporary and important subjects an artist can approach.

Crow’s Shadow at 25 is also importantly about a loose community, not just of artists but more essentially of native peoples defining their space within and without the larger culture. Most of the artworks in the Hallie Ford show are by Native American and other indigenous artists, because that’s what the history of Crow’s Shadow is. Lavadour (Walla Walla) began the art center in 1992, with fellow artist Philip Cash Cash (Cayuse/Nez Perce) and Lavadour’s wife at the time, JoAnn Lavadour, partly as a working space for Native artists and partly as an economic booster and training ground for young artists from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation outside Pendleton.

Lillian Pitt (Waso/ Yakama/ Warm Springs, b. 1943), “Round Dance,” 2006, ed. 20, two-color lithograph on Rives BFK white paper, 15 x 20 in,, CSP 06-015. Photo: Dale Peterson

Though some other media get instructional and studio time the artistic core of Crow’s Shadow has been printmaking, and it’s become a significant national and even international center for the medium. In the past fifteen-plus years more than fifty artists have done residencies, several multiple times – in almost all cases working with master printer Frank Janzen, who was trained at the legendary Tamarind Institute print center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

These artists, some of whom at first glance might be thought of as “traditional,” are among a vanguard considering what the land means, and what our relationship with it is. One of the most exciting things about spending time with this first-rate exhibition is to see how the Crow’s Shadow artists are forging an alternative history of the West and the broader American culture – a deeper and perhaps truer history, or at the very least one that expands into the vast areas that traditional history has misrepresented or simply ignored. Crow’s Shadow at 25 also emphasizes that history is contemporary and continuing, a complex construction of ideas and occurrences that even now is shaping the future.

In addition to Lavadour, the list of participants in the exhibit is long and distinguished, from the late Rick Bartow to Lillian Pitt, Joe Feddersen, Joe Cantrell, Edgar Heap of Birds, Corwin Clairmont, Eva Lake, James Luna, Victor Maldonado, Brenda Mallory, Wendy Red Star, Sara Siestreem, Adam Sorensen, Storm Tharp, Marie Watt, Samantha Wall, Kay WalkingStick, and more. As varied as their styles and approaches can be, somehow their work ties together, and it’s not just because it’s all prints but because it all comes from Crow’s Shadow. There is a spirit to the place and what comes out of it.

Jim Denomie (Ojibwe, b. 1955), “Untruthful,” 2011, series of 8, monoprint on Rives BFK white paper, 30 x 22 3/8 inches, Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts Archive, Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University, CSP 11-305(6). Photo: Dale Peterson

At least a couple of the artists showcased in Crow’s Shadow at 25 have the clowns’ capacity to disrupt something so it can be remade, concerning themselves specifically and comically with the misconceptions and exaggerations in mainstream culture about Indian life. Untruthful, by Jim Denomie (Ojibwe), bounces off of both pop culture and pop art, a scrawly, vibrant cartoon panel of two men on horses in the desert. “You lied to me!” Tonto says. “Get used to it,” the Lone Ranger replies. Just like that, a little bit of pop history is shifted: a truth was lurking, just waiting to be told.

Larry McNeil (Tlingit/Nisg’a) strikes a similar, even more scabrously satiric tone. His Edward Curtis’ Last Photograph might make you laugh out loud as a devastating little time bomb ticks away in the back of your head. “I swear by god Bob,” a man in a headdress and carrying a rifle tells his companion, “if that Curtis bone-head tries to rip us off again, I’m gonna stick that camera right up his … oh, ah … I mean, we um send him happy hunting grounds for many moons …” Below the cartoon image, McNeil writes: “Edward Curtis dressed a pair of Tlingit warriors in some costumes from the trunk of his car … it was the last photo he ever made …” This print and its companion Native Epistemology would’ve made fitting bookend guest appearances in the Portland Art Museum’s big show Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy last year.

Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke, b. 1981), “enit,” 2010, ed. 12, six-color lithograph on Rives BFK white paper with chine collé archival pigment ink photograph on Moab Estrada white paper, 22 3/8 x 30 in., CSP 10-101. Photo: Dale Peterson

Works like these, besides being topical and political (and just plain funny), serve as correctives: They reset the dial on what the mainstream culture thinks it knows, and the assumptions it makes. They upend gauzy romantic images of the noble native, and force a reckoning: to begin to understand what’s going on in the cultures they represent, you need to slip beneath the cozy platitudes and discover more complex truths. The complexity comes through in the artistry itself, which is as informed as any other contemporary art, with the added and central depth of its own traditions. These artists tend to be intimately familiar with the histories and directions of European art traditions; most are fully engaged in the larger contemporary art world.

One of the beauties of art is how your perspective on it can shift according to where your mind is at the moment. I saw Crow’s Shadow at 25 shortly after re-reading The Pacific Northwest Landscape: A Painted History, a historically fascinating little book published in 2001 that traces the natural images of the region from its earliest visiting white artist (John Webber, who traveled with Captain Cook on his 1778 exploration of Nootka Sound) into the 21st century. It’s a lovely volume, approaching its subject in a variety of ways, from the overtly romantic manifest-destiny impulses underlying images by painters such as Albert Bierstadt to nation-building urban scenes to the growth of agriculture to images of environmental degradation or disaster by the likes of Michael Brophy and Henk Pander. (Lavadour is represented, too.)

Zhang Yunling (Naxi [Chinese], b. 1955), “Ancient Naxi Landscape: Ploughing with Deer,” 2003, ed. 20, five-color lithograph on Kitakata paper, 10 3/8 x 16 7/8 inches, CSP 03-103. Photo: Dale Peterson

But it struck me strongly in revisiting the book that what was missing was the very foundation of the place and its art: the culture, and its relationship to the landscape, that had been in place for 10,000 years or more. The land is far older than the 18th century, and depictions of it are, too. What if this overview had begun not with Webber but with something much older, with the ancient rock art of the region – perhaps Tsagaglalal, She Who Watches, the magnificent pictograph at Horsethief Butte along the Columbia River? And what if it had maintained this parallel path, following the region’s native narrative forward as it intersected and clashed and made communion with the rise of European art in the Northwest?

Perhaps Crow’s Shadow at 25 doesn’t set out consciously to ground our view of who and what we are in the place we live. But that in effect is one of the things it does. Works like Bitterroot Winter by the Cherokee artist Kay WalkingStick (born in 1935, she’s the oldest artist in the exhibition) and Round Dance by the crucial Wasco/ Yakama/ Warm Springs artist Lillian Pitt assert the primary importance of the land itself and the peopling of it. Rick Bartow’s (Wiyot) Crow Shadow and Crow in a Boat, along with the likes of Ramon Murillo’s (Shoshone-Bannock) Blazing Sun and Protector Salmon Spirit; Susan Sheoships’ (Cayuse/Walla Walla) untitled, intricately decorated coil of a snake; New Zealand artist Marty Vreede’s raptor print Kuhu – Birth of a Messenger; Chinese (Naxi) artist Zhang Yunling’s Ancient Naxi Landscape: Ploughing with Deer; and Frank Lapena’s (Wintu) animal-spirit Gatekeepers of the Invisible stress the essential connection between humans and other creatures, co-inhabitors of the land. Susan Murrell’s 2012 litho tunnel through, whether it means to or not, seems to strike a balance beteeen the topographical and the humans who shape it: It looks at once like an island with a series of creeks and streams running toward its bays, and a brain with its complex of blood vessels and veins.

Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos, b. 1976), “GOOD LUCK, LOVE, AND MONEY,” 2013, ed. 16, two-color lithograph on reverse of Rives BFK white paper, 40 x 30 inches, CSP 13-106. Photo: Dale Peterson

Other works use the printmaking process to tie into other, more traditional forms of artmaking. Several prints by Marie Watt (Seneca) offer a cool, contemporary compositional approach to her smart and well-known installations of blankets, which hold a loaded history in native cultures. Sara Siestreem’s (Hanis Coos) prints, including the quietly ravishing 2013 Good Luck, Love, and Money, reflect her integrated interests in gestural symbolism and traditional basketry. Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke) continues to bring history into everyday life with her richly colored photo prints of traditional geometric patterns intertwined with cars, trucks, and people.

Vanessa Enos (Walla Walla/ Yakama/ Pima, enrolled Northern Cheyenne) explores human mars and marks on the land. Joe Feddersen (Colville Confederated Tribes), whose art so often transfers traditional patterns into urban contexts, brings a Mondrian-like geometric gridding to his 2003 lithograph Wyit View, which took a turn in the making when the construction project it meant to celebrate on the Umatilla reservation was canceled by tribal leaders, and federal funds for it relinquished, after ancestral remains were discovered on the site. Don Gray’s monoprint of a large gray rock, The Life of Stones, gets down to the visual essence of the landscape, while the terrific photographer Joe Cantrell (Cherokee), whose work combines scientific curiosity and close observation with artistic impulses, digs deeper via extreme closeup images into the land’s fantastic, usually invisible molecular shapes for his diptych Coyote’s Time Scales, a sort of time-imprint of the depth and dynamism of what we ordinarily think of as a solid thing. (“These images show how interconnected we are,” he comments; “we are all stardust.”)

Joe Cantrell (Cherokee, b. 1945), “Coyote’s Time Scales,” 2016, ed. 15, four-color lithograph on Somerset Satin white paper and Rives BFK white paper, 26 1/2 x 33 1/5 inches, CSP 16-115. Photo: Dale Peterson

The theme of the land comes full circle in a 2012 monoprint by Corwin Clairmont (Salish Kootenai) which at first glance seems like an expressionistic scrawl of fat criss-crossing lines. But sitting at the center of the X, and in a way buffeted by its motion, are two discernible figures: a polar bear, and a banana. Its title is simply Banana Polar Bear, and amid the sheer excitement of the print’s movement on the paper some unsettling questions rise: What are these Arctic and tropical images doing together, when they should be separated by climate and space? How is the world tilting? What is happening to the integrity of the land?

There is more to come, of course, from this rich generator and repository of contemporary art. The prints in Crow’s Shadow at 25 are the fruit of the Crow’s Shadow phenomenon, plucked and brought to market. The roots and vines are in the place, and its history, and its people, and the community of thought and labor and expression that continue to grow and thrive. It will change, inevitably, as it grows. Janzen, the master printer who’s had so much to do with Crow’s Shadow’s success, will retire late this year. His successor, Judith Baumann, also has background at Tamarind and has already begun working with him. We are lucky, in the Pacific Northwest, to have Crow’s Shadow so close at hand. Stay tuned for much more.

Corwin Clairmont (Salish Kootenai, b. 1946), “Banana Polar Bear,” 2012, series of 15, monoprint on Somerset Satin white paper, 22 3/8 x 30 inches, Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts Archive, Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University, CSP 12-301(5). Photo: Dale Peterson


THE TIE-IN: The collaboration between Crow’s Shadow and the Hallie Ford Museum of Art is a natural: The Salem museum has presented regular smaller exhibits of work from the art institute, and holds the Crow’s Shadow archives. Rebecca J. Dobkins, the museum’s curator of Native American art, has worked with many of the artists in the exhibit, and the Hallie Ford has built its reputation partly on its recognition of the importance of contemporary Native American art and partly as a center for the work of artists of the Pacific Northwest, historical and contemporary alike. It’s a bit of a surprise, considering the important role the museum has assumed among Northwest art institutions, to remember that the Hallie Ford is even younger than Crow’s Shadow: It opened in 1998.

THE CATALOG: The exhibition’s accompanying catalog, titled like the show Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts at 25, is quite good, and well worth buying if you like to delve deeper and revisit what you’ve seen. It includes, in addition to excellent reproductions of the art, a valuable essay on the history of Crow’s Shadow by longtime Pacific Northwest curator Prudence Roberts (who is also a member of Crow’s Shadow’s board of directors) and an equally valuable essay by the museum’s Dobkins and heather ahtone (Choctaw/Chickasaw) of the University of Oklahoma that traces the history of indigenous printmaking in North America and Crow’s Shadow’s place among other such centers.

THE LOWDOWN: The exhibition Crows Shadow Institute of the Arts at 25 continues through Dec. 22 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, 900 State Street, Salem. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. Sundays. Admission: $6 general, $4 ages 55-plus, $3 educators or college students with ID, free for ages 17 and younger. After closing in Salem, the exhibition will travel in 2018 to the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Wash., and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Washington State University in Pullman.

Rick Bartow (Wyot, 1945-2016), “Crow Shadow,”2013, series of 20, monoprint on Rives BFK white paper, 30 1/8 x 22 1/2 in., CSP 13-302(9)/ Photo: Dale Peterson

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