Who invented modern art? Or, more specifically, abstract art?
We all know the answer. It was the free-thinking American and European painters of the mid-20th century, heroes like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack and Clyfford Still who get all the credit for helping us see a whole new world of painting when they began emphasizing form and color over figurative imagery.
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Dyani White Hawk’s “Speaking to Relatives” continues through May 22 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, 1485 Delgany St. Info at 303-298-7554 or mcadenver.org.
But artist Dyani White Hawk has a different point of view. She sees abstraction in generations of hand-made objects created by Native Americans in North America, in the patterns and shapes of fabrics and beadwork created by Indigenous women for centuries.
The Lakota artist conjures all sorts of evidence for this theory in her show, “Speaking to Relatives,” now at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, presenting paintings, hand-stitched beadwork and videos that recall traditional “crafts” and invite convincing comparisons to the famous and revered easel painters who came about later.
Those of us accustomed to encountering work by names like Rothko and Picasso and O’Keeffe in contemporary art museums — but almost never the work of makers from Ingenious tribes in the Northern Plains — will see the similarities in the forms that appear colorfully on her canvases.
The word “crafts” goes into quotes here because “Speaking to Relatives,” as it is presented at the MCA, argues that these Indigenous objects should be thought of as art rather than the “artifacts” that they are often categorized as.
This is not just a matter of semantics. it suggests an entire reordering of the history of art, and elevating Native American art to the same status as art made in the post-colonial continent. In that way, “Speaking to Relatives” honors and preserves Native American history but also attempts to rewrite it.
White Hawk’s “Moccasin” series, from the early 2010s, offers the sharpest example. The artist’s abstract, acrylic-on-canvas works evoke the shapes of this particular footwear and the design patterns associated with traditional decoration of various apparel, blankets and jewelry. These decorations recall Native American arrangements of thread, beads and fabric, but they are rendered in sharp lines and hard edges and reduced to rectangles and circles. She places these images on backgrounds of solid color.
In this way, she opens viewers’ minds to the connections between traditional work and the products of the geometric abstractionists and color field painters and sculptors who made their mark in the modern art movement. White Hawk paintings, such as “Transition” and “Self-reflection,” invite comparisons to everyone from Wassily Kandinsky to Piet Mondrian to Josef Albers to Ellsworth Kelly and other mostly-male artists who moved back and forth, physically and stylistically, between Europe and the U.S. in the 1920s through the 1970s.
But, while those painters’ work relied heavily on hard edges — very clear lines and divisions between colors that give the works a non-human coldness — White Hawk has a wider repertoire, and she shows it in later works from her “Quiet Strength“ series, which are on display in the show. For these pieces, White Hawk uses tiny brush strokes, multitudes of them, to represent the intricate and minute patterns of beadwork and porcupine quillwork historically practiced by Native women.
Yes, these women were abstractionists, and White Hawk captures that reduced and highly interpretive essence of their work in paintings like 2018’s “She Gives.” But the repetitive complexity of White Hawk’s own abstract paintings reminds us that these earlier Native objects were made painstakingly by hand. The women may have shared a fondness for abstraction with Rothko, but their methods were warmer and more intimate.
White Hawk drives home that point with more recent pieces, from her “Carry” series made in 2019 and 2020, where she incorporates into her canvases thousands of minuscule beads she sews on with her own hand. The magic of these works is that they still retain the strict geometry that forces viewers to relate them to the Modernists, but she is now using the actual media of the early Native artists to make her point. Her ideas are fully realized.
In that way, “Speaking to Relatives,” which is arranged chronologically and follows a decade of work, is a revealing journey for museum visitors. There are two stories to the show, one about art and the other about the artist’s evolution. Credit for that viewer satisfaction goes also to its organizer, Jade Powers, who is an assistant curator at Kansas City’s Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
Separately from the exhibition of White Hawk’s mostly two-dimensional works on the MCA’s first floor is the installation of the artist’s video series, titled “LISTEN,” in the museum’s basement, which she made with cinematographer Razelle Benally,
For this series of eight videos, White Hawk asked present-day Indigenous women from various tribes to speak on camera in their distinct tribal languages. Lorrain Ryan German, for example, speaks in Dakota, Shandiin Hiosik Yazzie in Dine, Lucinda Polk in Kwatsaán.
What these women are actually saying is a mystery, however, since there are no subtitles on the monitors. Instead, White Hawk wants viewers to listen to the sound and cadence of these languages and to interpret the dialogue by watching gestures and facial expressions.
It is a brave move because, for viewers, it is jarring and demanding. It takes little work to settle in and just listen for some time, and that is more than a lot of museum-goers are willing to commit to.
But it also makes for an involving and immersive installation. Subtitles would turn these interviews into documentaries or the sort of facts-first teaching tools you see in a history museum or on educational television. Without the subtitles, they go for something deeper. They ask viewers to interpret the words in symbolic and sensory ways, instead of through purely intellectual means, the same way we might consume a musical piece that attempts to capture, say, a rite of spring or the four seasons.
In that way, the videos are pure abstraction, though a new kind of abstraction, from an artist with astute ideas about what constitutes abstract art.
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