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CHANGING HANDS: ART WITHOUT RESERVATION

What: Approximately 150 carvings, sculptures, baskets, jewelry and other objects by more than 130 American Indian artists from western and northwestern United States, Canada, Alaska and Hawaii.

When: Runs through Jan. 13.

Where: Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, 333 E. River Rd., Minneapolis.

Review: This impressive survey of contemporary American Indian art ranges from minimalist sculpture to elaborately beaded high-tops, demonstrating the vital fusion of modern concepts and traditional materials with which Indians articulate their appreciation for and criticism of American culture.

Tickets: Free. 612-625-9494 or www.weisman.umn.edu

Drawing a new bead on tradition

  • Article by: Review Mary Abbe
  • November 1, 2007 - 3:39 PM

Hula dancers made of chocolate, beaded hightop tennis shoes, a sealskin messenger bag trimmed with polar bear fur, a golden bracelet engraved with thunderbirds, a bustier made of red cedar bark fringed with guinea feathers.

Everywhere, the eye finds elegant objects, beautifully crafted, in "Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation" at the University of Minnesota's Weisman Art Museum through Jan. 13. Like the international art expos held periodically in Venice, London, Seoul, Basel and elsewhere, "Changing Hands" is a rich sample of multinational trends, new and seasoned talents, traditional materials given new spin.

The Weisman's show, however, delivers all that without leaving North America. All of its talents are from American Indian nations in the western and northwestern United States, Canada, Alaska and Hawaii. A distinct "Indian-ness" runs throughout in allusions to legends, mythic animals, the natural world and traditional crafts -- masks, beadwork, basketry. But as suggested by its punning subtitle -- art without reservation -- the show goes beyond tribal heritage and Indian identity issues to engage broader themes in contemporary culture.

Organized by the Museum of Arts & Design in New York (formerly the American Craft Museum), the show is the second in a series that began with Southwest art and will conclude with work from tribes in the northeastern United States and Canada. This show largely ignores tribal and reservation affiliations in favor of identifying the artists by where they were born and now live. The museum's point seems to be that this is not ethnographic or anthropological art, but work that transcends its roots and speaks to all. Still, even in a generalized pan-Indian show, it would be helpful to acknowledge more clearly the tribal origins underpinning the images and forms.

Officially there are four conceptual categories in the show: the human condition, material evidence, beyond function, nature as subject. In practice these vague themes largely disappear in the galleries.

Traditionalists and admirers of American Indian legends will find plenty to appreciate in the beadwork, basketry and wood carvings. Teri Greeves completely encrusts a pair of hightop tennis shoes with beaded handprints and portraits of Indians in traditional garb, while Tom Haukaas beaded a boy's shirt with colorful buffalo and elaborate birds because he wanted to "engage the viewer in romantic notions of Native peoples and our histories," as he explained in the show's catalog. Emil Her Many Horses, a Lakota born on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, made a very touching miniature beaded deerskin tepee in tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York in 2001.

There are beautiful baskets by Joey Lavadour, who makes bear-paw patterns by twining colorful Pendleton blanket yarns into hemp cords, and an elegant glass sculpture by Preston Singletary representing a bird with a frog on its back. Glass is obviously an unconventional medium in American Indian culture, but employed eloquently by several artists. Kevin Pourier's ceremonial spoons made of buffalo horn and mother-of-pearl are exquisite, with a herd of miniature buffalo galloping across the polished surface of one and a flock of delicate monarch butterflies fluttering over another.

More conceptual, critical and humorous pieces carry Indian art into the 21st century. Puni Kukahiko, a native Hawaiian woman born on Oahu, displays four hula girls cast in chocolate and perched on a glass cake plate as a wry critique of the cheapened ideas of beauty and eroticism that are common in Hawaii's tourist culture. Doug Coffin of Lawrence, Kan., produced a "Cigar Store Indian" with a video-screen face on which Hollywood heroes cavort in stereotypical '50s era cinematic cowboy-and-indian battles. Gerald Clarke of Hemet, Calif., turned stereotyping into "Ethnopoly," a consciousness-raising game modeled on Monopoly.

Among the more sophisticated conceptual items is a pile of strange little pouches made of chunks of inflated walrus stomach pierced with porcupine quills. Created by Alaska artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs, the fiercely bristling pouches represent "Guarded Secrets," she says, but their penile/condom shapes give them a distinctly Freudian aura. Eric Robertson of Vancouver, British Columbia, managed to transform tiny fish called eulachon, which apparently spawn in West Coast rivers, into a dramatic minimalist sculpture consisting of three stainless steel rings -- each 8 feet in diameter -- from which hundreds of aluminum "fish" dangle as if drying. The transformation of a traditional utilitarian fish-drying rack into a sleekly modern sculpture is impressive and fitting for a show of this scope and ambition.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

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