O'odham Colors

Artists with Native American roots show variety within diversity.

Some artists happily identify themselves by their ethnicity, gender or national origin while others adamantly insist that they don't want to be identified only as Native American artists, women artists or Hispanic artists. For artists shown in identity-oriented exhibitions, a sense of pride in their heritage, a belief in the political importance of asserting their heritage or simply an acceptance of this part of their identity outweighs any fears of being categorized and marginalized in the mainstream art world.

O'odham Reflections, the current exhibition at the Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, offers the Tucson community an opportunity to see works by five artists whose roots lay in the nearby Tohono O'odham, Salt River and Gila River Native-American communities. Several of these artists' undergraduate and graduate education scattered them across the United States, but they have all returned to Arizona. Their artwork, however, never stopped traveling; it has been exhibited nationally and internationally.

Since at least the 1980s, Dean Narcho, a founding member of the Dinnerware cooperative gallery, has been painting in a style he characterizes as abstract expressionism in a color field. The phrase aptly captures his acrylic-on-canvas paintings in this exhibition. One untitled painting is dense with splattered paint, much as Jackson Pollack's paintings are. Another of Narcho's paintings has a center circle filled with large dots painted in pink, red, yellow, orange and other bright colors. The circle is painted on a solid background reminiscent of color-field painters like Helen Frankenthaler, whose paintings evolved into canvases of solid colors. Although Narcho's imagery fits easily into the context of abstract expressionism and color-field abstraction--two mainstream 20th-century art movements--O'odham Reflections reveals another source for Narcho's paintings.

Narcho's works are hung beside watercolor-and-acrylic paintings by Whitney Grey, who is a member of the Salt River Indian Community. Grey's small paintings use the bleeding hues of watercolors to create backgrounds for forms based on pictographic designs, including goat and human figures. Sections of Grey's paintings are densely patterned with stipples of brightly colored acrylic paint. The patterning reflects the intricate designs of traditional Native American artwork. Placed beside Grey's artwork, Narcho's paintings also seem to draw on such Native-American sources, which is not surprising since Narcho trained as a Tohono O'odham medicine man.

On the other hand, Marcus Zilliox's Native-American and Mexican-American heritage is not apparent in his abstract imagery. The pressed patterns, varied forms and saturated colors of his acrylic-on-panel paintings seem to deal more with the formal concerns of many abstract painters.

Terrol Dew Johnson, a Tohono O'odham activist and educator in Sells, contributes artwork that reflects his cultural heritage. He uses gourds to form the bases of baskets. The tops of the gourds are cut out into curvilinear shapes. Then twined, woven grass is attached to the top of the gourd to transform it into a basket. A section of the woven shape of each basket is left open like the weft of a cloth that has not been crossed with the warp. The gourds have a lovely butternut color with dark mottled areas, so that gourd and basket together meld the Tohono O'odham's two traditional arts: low-fired clay pottery and basketry. Yet Johnson's basket gourds are contemporary in being non-functional.

In his artist's statement, Olen Perkins writes that he received his art education in the 1980s, that he still does 1980s artwork and that it's still valid. His most recent acrylic-on-canvas paintings are definitely 1980s mainstream style, à la David Salle. The large canvases are covered with images appropriated or taken from many different sources rendered in paint as line drawings or in a cartoon style. Like many 1980s artists, Perkins also is preoccupied with in-your-face sexuality. Since this is 2002, the sexuality comes in the form of collages of graphic Internet porn images of women.

Perkins reveals his sense of irony about mainstream American culture by parodying its cultural icons. He paints images of everything from a Pepsi logo to a plate of bacon and eggs. Many of the images seem random, although some paintings do move somewhat associatively. For example, "Booster" includes the phrase "Kissing the Devil beneath his tail" and a painted medieval-style drawing of a woman about to do just that as well as a collaged photograph of a woman in a devil's costume bearing her breasts. Other images include a rough painting of a steak (a pork loin, a piece of meat, you get the idea). The stenciled letters "WWW" are intended to bring all of this and more into the context of the Internet. Perkins' two other 2002 paintings use more sexually explicit photos of women downloaded from porn Web sites.

What does this add up to? That Internet porn is now part of the profusion of popular culture that assaults us everyday? What is annoying about this body of work is that Perkins is confronting the viewer with offensive material, but to what end? Yes, we know Internet porn is out there. Some of us have had the misfortune to stumble over porn Web sites. Now anyone who has walked into the Dinnerware Gallery has seen a couple of images. So we've seen it. Now what?

Obviously, one artist is not going to resolve difficult cultural issues like pornography, free speech and electronic media, but if he's going to tackle it, he should have something more to say about it.

Too often the arts community has to defend an artist's right to use offensive material, and it should. But it would be nice to have stronger work to support if necessary.

Ultimately, what O'odham Reflections reveals is that one should not stereotype artists based on their ethnicity, not only because it's politically incorrect, but because it doesn't work. People who share an ethnic background can transform even their shared experiences into something completely different. O'odham Reflections would not fit in any art box.

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