Indigeneity and Contemporary Native Photographers

Students in my ART 4763: Native American Art and Material Culture course regularly make use of interviews in the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program’s Oklahoma Native Artists Project. Last fall, I asked students to bring together interviews from the Project with interviews or artists’ statements published elsewhere, in thematic discussions that explore the range and diversity of Native artists’ experiences. Last week, Project director Julie Pearson-Little Thunder and I presented papers about the use of oral history in art advocacy and pedagogy at the Oklahoma Arts Conference. As these students’ essays make clear, oral history is a vital tool in understanding contemporary art and experience. In this post, Jennifer Johnson explores the concept of indigeneity, pointing to some of the ways in which artists subvert the colonial origins and implications of the term while celebrating their own contemporary indigenous identities.

The term “indigeneity,” according to the Oxford Dictionary, is defined as “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native.” The term “Native American” grew out of this definition. To rely on the past as a means of defining contemporary Native American existence and visual culture is problematic, however, and many Native artists for decades have been challenging this “time-locking” effect.

One way that Native artists challenge the perception of indigeneity is by utilizing media that is non-stereotypical. Two Native artists who use photography to challenge perceptions of Indigeneity are Richard Whitman (Yuchi) and Joi Arcand (Plains Cree). Richard Whitman’s Street Chiefs series of the 1970s juxtaposes imagery and language in order to draw attention to Native homelessness in Oklahoma; the irony of being “homeless” in one’s “homeland.” Joi Arcand’s 2009 Here on Future Earth series, the photography also juxtaposes language with city imagery, but instead replaces the English text on business signage with the Plains Cree language. For both of these artists, juxtaposing language and contemporary Native imagery challenges the false perception that Native culture is of the past and reinforces their personal experience of their own indigeneity.

Richard Ray Whitman, from the

Richard Ray Whitman, from the “Street Chiefs” series, photograph.

In an interview with Julie Pearson-Little Thunder for the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at OSU Stillwater, Whitman discusses his inspiration for the series. Whitman explains he was looking for his mother’s residence in Oklahoma City, and during the searching an individual called out to him in the Yuchi language. It shocked and perplexed Whitman how an individual from his community, and many others from other Native communities, could be homeless. “I think I was drawn to them because it was something I didn’t understand….How could you be homeless?…they came from a rural community. It was supportive, even though families – it was supportive. I didn’t understand it for the most part.” Whitman’s image of a homeless Kiowa man standing in front of a billboard that reads “Buy Oklahoma,” drove home the concept of the Street Chiefs series. This series challenges the perception that all Natives live in very tight, isolated communities that consistently support and nourish each other, presumably like the tribal culture of their pasts. Whitman’s Chiefs tell a very different narrative of indigeneity and the contemporary Native experience, one that highlights the struggle, loneliness, and poverty that many Natives, both on and off the reservations, live with.

Joi Arcand,

Joi Arcand, “Northern Pawn, South Vietnam,” from “Here on Future Earth,” 2010.

Arcand also juxtaposes language and imagery, but she does so in order to highlight her experience working at the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre, where individuals working in Native language revival influenced her. Arcand was distressed by her own (and her family’s) inability to speak their tribe’s language. “Language is culture,” Arcand states, “[t]here are far too many indigenous languages that are either extinct or endangered…. I realized that my own inability to speak the language means that in my family, the language is extinct.” By altering the landscape of the city with Plains Cree language, Arcand not only emphasizes the importance of having language function in society, but also, like Whitman, comments on a kind of irony; the irony of Native people’s tribal languages often being foreign languages. For artists like Whitman and Arcand, the concept of indigeneity cannot be one of the past, since these perceptions and stereotypes of the “time-locked” Native are clearly not the reality of many Natives.

Two other Native artists working in photography who are challenging the perception of indigeneity are Tom Fields (Cherokee/Creek) and Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner (Tlingit/N’ishga). Tom Fields’ photography of Native communities from the 1980s onward emphasizes images of everyday Native life that non-Natives might not be aware of. Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner’s Reinterpretation series explores the history of photography of Native subjects and reconstructs those images by presenting a mirror image of himself with his everyday objects and attire presented next to the original, “outsider perspective” image. These artists also incorporate their own personal experience and perspective as a means to illustrate what indigenous means to them and to challenge the stereotypes of Native existence, both past and present.

Tom Fields,

Tom Fields, “Bus Rider,” photograph.

In his interview with Julie Pearson-Little Thunder for the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program, Fields discusses his photography process and his intent as an artist. “[T]he Indian world, I grew up in it…it’s so vast, so big and complex…you can’t just generalize everything. I think as a photographer there is just one job I have….to show people a whole new perspective of whatever it is I am shooting….something they’ve never seen before.” This “new perspective” challenges what kinds of images are appropriate or interesting to capture about native communities. Fields states that for him the everyday moments in Native communities are “powerful” and “precious,” and its these images, not the conventional powwow and dance imagery, that truly represent the contemporary Native experience.

Da-ka-xeen Mehner, Da-ka-xeen Mehner, "Da-ka-xeen the Thlinget Artist," from the Reinterpretation series, 2007.

Da-ka-xeen Mehner,
Da-ka-xeen Mehner, “Da-ka-xeen the Thlinget Artist,” from the Reinterpretation series, 2007.

Artist Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner’s Reinterpretation series explores the history of Native photography, particularly that of the Case and Draper images taken in 1906 Alaska by non-Natives. “As I studied our visual history…I realized that it is an outsider view of my culture that I am left with. The….images are a perfect example of the constructed identity of Native-ness through the lens of the “other.” Mehner was inspired to reconstruct the images by taking a “contemporary image” of a Native individual (himself) in the same position and environment, then mirroring it next to the original, “other” image. This has the effect of the viewer, at first, not registering one Native as “modern,” and then being startled once the reality of the work sinks in. This series directly challenges the false perceptions that surround the “time-locked” Native and helps separate the stereotypes of the past and the contemporary reality of indigeneity.

The term “indigeneity,” functioning as a term meaning “native,” or “originating in a particular place,” both embodies and conflicts with the imagery of these artists, as the concept of contemporary indigeneity both accurately portrays history and contemporary life, while challenging those false “time-locked” perceptions. Often what determined the understanding of Native experience and culture came not from Native peoples themselves, but from non-Natives who often, instead of relying on Native peoples themselves, logged generalizations, speculations, and misinterpretations as facts. Many Native artists for a good part of the 20th and 21st centuries have been trying to correct this historical error. Artists like Whitman, Fields, Mehner, and Arcand are just a few examples of artists attempting to aid in this process, and their work effectively redefines what qualifies as indigeneity in the contemporary Native American experience.

Student essays posted on the blog are edited only for length and clarity. Did you enjoy this post? Check out earlier posts in this series by Bridget DixonZak Frick, and Roxanne Beason!

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Native American Artists on Contemporary Arts Education

Students in my ART 4763: Native American Art and Material Culture course regularly make use of interviews in the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program’s Oklahoma Native Artists Project. Last fall, I asked students to bring together interviews from the Project with interviews or artists’ statements published elsewhere, in thematic discussions that explore the range and diversity of Native artists’ experiences. Over the next few weeks, in conjunction with the Oklahoma Arts Conference, where Project director Julie Pearson-Little Thunder and I will be presenting about uses of Project interviews, I’ll be sharing some of the students’ papers on the blog. In this post, Roxanne Beason explores contemporary Native American artists’ education, investigating how it has shaped their work and expanded their audiences.

Arts education has provided opportunities for many indigenous Americans to bring their traditional arts into contemporary spaces and media. Many schools like Haskell, CalArts, and the Institute of American Indian Arts have been working to provide Natives an opportunity to learn their tribal traditions and hone their talents while endeavoring to create a space for their work in the modern art realm. Many Native artists that attended these schools credit their success to their experiences in higher education. In the following interviews, contemporary Native artists describe their own experiences of attending Native American art schools and other universities as being invaluable to their success in the competitive contemporary art world.

Gina Grey states that her art education began when she attended open programs at the Denver Indian community center where she discovered her early interest and in art and a desire to create it.  It was there she met her art instructor, Mr. Pool, who helped her cultivate that interest and propelled her into attending IAIA in Santa Fe to continue her education in the arts. Grey praises her experience at IAIA as the thing that led her to CalArts and being an artist. She states, “I was like a dry sponge when I was there. I couldn’t believe a school was just dedicated to art. You had to take your academic classes, but there was really no pressure for it. They were interested in teaching you some art.”  After moving to CalArts, she was confronted with instructors who opposed her “Indian” approach to her work and she was also faced with the male-dominated art world. Despite that fact, she pushed forward through her education and kept making art that reflected her identity as a Native artist.

Benjamin Harjo, Jr., "Honoring the Spirit of All Things," 2001. Opaque watercolor on paper, anonymous gift, 2012.009.004.

Benjamin Harjo, Jr., “Honoring the Spirit of All Things,” 2001. Opaque watercolor on paper, anonymous gift, 2012.009.004.

Benjamin Harjo Jr. speaks fondly of his experiences in art school at IAIA and Oklahoma State University. He recalls discovering a bulletin at a Shawnee Indian Hospital for the then newly-formed school, IAIA, an art school for Natives to take specific art classes—cartooning classes peaked his interest most of all. When he arrived at IAIA, they no longer offered cartooning, but Harjo explored many other media, including jewelry making, print making and pottery. Interviewer Julie Pearson-Little Thunder asked Harjo why he thinks the IAIA program is successful, and he replied, “When I first started there, we had around three hundred students, and the students came from everywhere in the United States. Alaska and all of the other tribal entities came there, and I had not realized how many there were until I went to school there…I think it was very enjoyable because we lived on campus. We were like a clique of creative energy. It kind of emanated from there.” Many students, like Harjo, who had attended IAIA after it was founded, were provided the experience and platform to become prolific artists in the contemporary art community.

In another interview, Julie Pearson-Little Thunder talks with another Oklahoma Native artist, Tony Tiger, about his life and education in the arts. After only dabbling in art a little bit in high school, it was 7-8 years later, after some time being young and rambunctious, that Tiger would decide that going to art school was the best decision for his life. Studying art at Seminole State, Tiger worked under the instruction of Kelly Kirk, who advised him to continue his arts education at Oklahoma State University. After his time at OSU, Tiger began attending University of Oklahoma to finish his BFA and receive his Masters in Arts. Under the tutelage of painting instructor, George Hughes, Tiger began to realize, “…it’s not always the most gifted artist who is successful. It’s the artist who has the most drive and is in the right place at the right time. He really inspired me to work hard and to study and to learn all I could, and to start exhibiting a little bit, and not being afraid to push things a little further than most people would like.”

In an interview with Theresa Barbaro from Luxe Immo Art, Jeffery Gibson talks about how his experience with the art world and his higher education have led him to produce art that acts as commentary on contemporary Native issues. Gibson explains that he had been drawing since he was a small child and he started painting regularly throughout high school. In his first year of college, he pursued his interests and studied subjects like psychology, anthropology and painting—which led him to continue studying painting at the Arts Institute of Chicago and then later at The Royal College of Art in London for his Master’s degree. Gibson explain how his education shaped his artistic concepts by stating, “[During school, I] worked as a NAGPRA research intern at the Field Museum in Chicago. That experience greatly influenced my thinking about translation, in particular, cultural translation in a museum. . . Some audiences are able to see the influence of Native American objects and design, and other audiences understand it as formal abstraction…I play with the varying perceptions.” Gibson took his experiences from his higher education to understand the way Native American culture is perceived and provide a new interpretive representation for contemporary audiences.

Natalie M. Ball, "The Savages," 2009. Image courtesy of Katie Zerzan and the Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists blog.

Natalie M. Ball, “The Savages,” 2009. Image courtesy of Katie Zerzan and the Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists blog.

Natalie M. Ball tells interviewer Katie Zerzen about how her Modoc and Klamath tribal identity, along with her time working on a degree in Ethnic Studies, left a significant imprint on her art work. As a child, Ball enjoyed art and making crafts, but she was never formally trained in any particular medium nor did she have the inclination that she would eventually become the artist she is today. While attending the University of Oregon and majoring in Ethnic Studies, she took painting as an elective and then quickly decided to double major in fine arts, and eventually, in Indigenous Visual Arts. She correlates her education with the direction of her art work by explaining, “…my work is always in discussion with racial narratives critical to understanding of both the self and the nation and necessarily, our shared experiences and histories…it goes beyond the language of memory to allow for witnessing that does not diminish the past or the present.” Her art engages audiences with necessary ethnographic conversations about her own indigenous identity.

Contemporary artists hold the power to convey a critical reflection of the culture we inhabit. Knowledge and education are key elements necessary to generate a powerful visual message. It is important that Native artists are given the opportunity to gain that knowledge and hone their talent so that they are able to express their identity and culture in a contemporary art setting. Doing so reaches a broader audience and educates them about the Native experience.

Student essays posted on the blog are edited only for length and clarity. Did you enjoy this post? Check out earlier posts in this series by Bridget Dixon and Zak Frick!

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What Constitutes “Native American Art” and Why Does It Exist?

Students in my ART 4763: Native American Art and Material Culture course regularly make use of interviews in the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program’s Oklahoma Native Artists Project. Last fall, I asked students to bring together interviews from the Project with interviews or artists’ statements published elsewhere, in thematic discussions that explore the range and diversity of Native artists’ experiences. Over the next few weeks, in conjunction with the Oklahoma Arts Conference, where Project director Julie Pearson-Little Thunder and I will be presenting about uses of Project interviews, I’ll be sharing some of the students’ papers on the blog. In this post, Zakery Frick takes a closer look at how people define Native American art, and what that means for contemporary artists.

Many people interpret the idea of art differently, but when it comes to what identifies “Native American Art,” the question’s intentions alter. Instead of asking things like “why did you choose this color?” or “what was the reasoning behind this medium?”, questions like “how is this representative of a tribal setting?” or “I thought Native artists only painted and made jewelry?” get asked. Artists of all types struggle with identity, but sometimes it can be especially hard to break a perceived identity that is put upon you, such as being a Native American artist and what that constitutes.

There are some artists, such as Gina Gray, who use what would be considered a more “traditional” form. Gray was a painter and a printmaker from the Osage Tribe, and she started at a young age, becoming something of a prodigy. She was educated in designated Indian institutes including the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and was tutored early on by a retired Native arts teacher. Gray was in an environment that was centered on Native art her whole life, and her most prestigious works are ones that could be considered traditional for a contemporary artist—close to what people often think represents Native American art.

clan-seeker-gina-gray

‘Clan Seeker’ by Gina Gray.

However, not all artists of Native American heritage have had the same experience. In fact, several have had lives that wouldn’t be classified as traditional at all, and their art represents that. D. G. Smalling is a great example of this, as he was raised more in Africa and Europe and taught European styles of art, even though he is of Native American descent. He lived in Switzerland, near Geneva, where he took art classes and education. When asked about where he saw his first piece of Native art, he said “I have no idea. My grandfather, more than likely. He kept things on his desk. That’s probably where it was. I had blankets made for me, so actually that would have been the first because those were my birth blankets.”

Smalling is an artist who identifies himself as a Native American artist, but not by the style of art he does. His most famous form of art is a unique form of drawing he calls one-line, where he makes a picture using only a single line and never letting his pen up until it is finished. He doesn’t use a traditional technique though, or any traditional tools. Just a pen and a piece of paper, and I respect this artist for doing his own form instead of relying on one that is already defined.

Another thing many people consider when they are determining if they think something is Native or not is the content. Everyone knows the icon of a Native American chief with a huge feather headdress smoking on a peace pipe, and since Native American artists are still unknown to a lot of people outside of the states in which they are prominent, that stereotype is all they have to go off of. But many artists are using their talents to try and change these ideals, especially politically.

Many Native American artists are political activists in some way, and Shan Goshorn is no different. She has used her works to make political points in the past, such as Sealed Fate: Treaty of New Echota Protest Basket (2009), woven from digitized strips of the New Echota Treaty, along with the 40,000 signatures of Cherokees who objected to the treaty. I consider this work to be a great example of how Native artists are just as equally powerful and influential as any other artist when it comes to political means. Activist art has existed across the world in every culture, including Native American ones. Native American art is just as powerful politically as any other form of art. It has the same strong effect on people’s feelings when they see it, which is what many agree art should do – elicit an emotional response from the viewer.

Another approach, which has been taken by Harry Fonseca, has been not only to explore other cultures’ art, but also to combine their ideals and forms with his own work. For example, his series titled “Coyote” is a series of pictures done in a style similar to what you would see painted on rock walls or other natural forms, but they usually depict a coyote character in modern, Americanized clothing. In his culture, the coyote is seen as a trickster, similar to how Loki is the god of tricks and mischief in Nordic mythology. By putting his character in the clothes of American culture, Fonseca is essentially calling whatever the coyote is wearing a lie.

Fonseca’s paintings work as political pieces, but they also show how arts from different cultures blend together, making it hard to distinguish between them. Fonseca’s work has European American symbols, but is done in a more recognizable Native American form (rough paintings on natural surfaces). He creates his paintings on canvas, but mimics the look of rock painting with how he paints his figures, which again mixes the mediums.

And finally some pieces of pure abstraction, with no affiliation or association with any one culture. Joe Feddersen, who is an abstract painter by trade, started off making pieces that had nothing whatsoever to do with human symbols or constructs. In fact, the closest thing he associates them with is our images of space and the galaxy. Examples of abstract paintings and drawings can be found throughout history and across cultures, and I feel they are a way of linking everyone together in an equal understanding. You need no knowledge of political issues, or of the timeframe the person who made the piece was in; abstraction is the opposite of specific cultural identification in most cases.

fed226_uv_culdesac

Joe Feddersen, “Urban Vernacular: Cul de Sac,” 2008.

To me, the idea of “Native American art” is more of a stigma than an identifier. The phrase itself just reinforces the idea that it should be judged or viewed differently than other cultural pieces – that it isn’t on the same level as something that was painted by an artist of the Renaissance simply because it’s Native American. Native American artists themselves aren’t even sure how to identify Native American art, and frankly I don’t think it should be identified in most cases.

In Feddersen’s or Smalling’s cases, they don’t need a Native American identifier. They are unique artists in their own right, and the only cases where I feel having Native American ties really add to something is when it is making a political statement of some sort, which is why I included Goshorn and Fonseca in this discussion. Their pieces wouldn’t make much sense without knowing the political backstory of their pieces, and their Native American heritage. But having a broad term for these pieces I feel is not helpful to the art itself, nor the artists, because it could make someone feel that they are forced into an artistic category simply based on their bloodlines, even if they want to do something that would be seen as culturally completely different. The whole point of art today is a sense of freedom and creativity, and having labels for these things stifles that.

Student essays posted on the blog are edited only for length and clarity. Image sources: Alex Jacobs, “Farewell, Laughing Sister: Osage Artist Gina Gray Walks On,” Indian Country Today Media Network; Froelick Gallery, Joe Fedderson artist page.

 

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Collaboration Among Native American Artists

Students in my ART 4763: Native American Art and Material Culture course regularly make use of interviews in the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program’s Oklahoma Native Artists Project. Last fall, I asked students to bring together interviews from the Project with interviews or artists’ statements published elsewhere, in thematic discussions that explore the range and diversity of Native artists’ experiences. Over the next few weeks, in conjunction with the Oklahoma Arts Conference, where Project director Julie Pearson-Little Thunder and I will be presenting about uses of Project interviews, I’ll be sharing some of the students’ papers on the blog. I begin with Bridget Dixon’s exploration of collaboration in the Native art community.

Collaboration can be extremely beneficial to most working artists, including Native American artists, who often collaborate with other artists within their own tribe as well as those who have no affiliation with any tribe. Just as with any profession, connections and relationships are everything. Collaboration has the potential to drastically increase the production and the profits of Native American artists.  Their collaborations include those with family, organizations, and even established brands.

Shan Goshorn, an Eastern Band Cherokee artist, is a member of “The Makers,” a collection of Native American artists who create concept art in a variety of media.  According to Goshorn, the group believes that “as Indian people, it’s not about making artwork to hang on the wall, it’s about the process of making it and the ceremony involved in making it.” Traditionally, craft within the tribe was a communal affair. Artists would share stories with one another as they worked, and the resulting artworks sometimes evoked the owner of the piece to tell a story.  Goshorn also remembers collaborating with an artist from Cherokee, North Carolina. He would carve abstract forms from wood, then Goshorn painted them and added beads.

despite-aka-three-sisters

“Despite (aka Three Sisters),” by Shan Goshorn, 2012

Bobby Martin, a Muscogee Creek printmaker, talks about his collaborative show with Tony Tiger, a Native American painter. He explains that working with Tiger became a sort of “crossroads” at which he decided to begin making art for the second time. Martin’s situation demonstrates the power of collaboration as it relates to an artistic career.

Bill Glass Jr.’s collaboration with his son has had similar results. The ceramist explains that the partnership enabled him to take his artwork to the next level by creating larger works, for which his son created the inner framework. In an unpredictable art market, collaboration often allows artists to explore new ideas or techniques that they have not yet had a chance to pursue.

Native American artists sometimes collaborate with organizations and companies alike. According to Goshorn, “any corporate installation…is a collaboration.” She was once invited to work with a casino associated with the Tunica Biloxi tribe. The casino flew her from her home so that she could find inspiration in old pottery retrieved from a mound known to belong to the tribe.

Collaboration can be a huge source of knowledge for Native American artists, especially in situations such as this. Native American artists who become employed as creatives within companies collaborate with other people all the time.  Bobby Martin worked as the Graphic Design Coordinator at Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. According to the American Institute of Graphic Arts, a graphic design coordinator is expected to work with the graphic designers and marketing team to produce all print, web, television, or radio advertising for a company. Employed under this title, Martin would have collaborated as a part of his everyday routine.

Collaboration has not always been a pleasant event for Native American artists. The “collaboration” that took place between artists and Europeans looking to collect or “preserve” Native American culture during the late 19th century and the early 20th century was usually in the best interest of the white individual. However, in the face of the ongoing cultural appropriation of Native America, much groundbreaking and exciting collaboration between fashion designers and Native American artists is happening today.

In 2013, famous fashion designer Paul Frank confirmed that he would be collaborating with four Native American artists to develop new accessories. According to the press release, shared on the Native Appropriations blog, “[t]he collection, which will include a tote bag, hand-beaded sunglasses, graphic tees and Hama bead jewelry is an expression of the Native American culture and a way for the artists to integrate their perspective and tribal identity into fashion.”

pfxnative-tags-front

Paul Frank Presents: Louis Gong, Autumn Dawn Gomez, Candace Halcro, Dustin Martin.

Bethany Yellowtail, owner of the brand b.YELLOWTAIL, is combating cultural appropriation in her own way. Yellowtail outlines her goals for the collection, “The Mighty Few,” saying, “I simply want to carve out a space where an authentic voice and an authentic representation of Native America exists and thrives.” While working with other Native American artists, she strives to display Native Americans in a modern fashion instead of in a stereotypical way. She collaborated with an artist named John Pepion, who created the ledger drawing design used on a scarf featured in the Native American inspired collection.

Although collaboration between Native artists and Euro-Americans sometimes recalls a questionable past, today it is a prime source of inspiration among Native American artists everywhere. Artists such as Shan Goshorn, Bobby Martin, and Bill Glass Jr. have all benefited greatly from collaboration in some way. Cultural appropriation plagues the fashion industry; however, a few designers such as Paul Frank and Bethany Yellowtail, have decided to take a stance against this kind of activity. With this momentum, a bright future is in store for Native American artists and the culture as a whole.

Online registration for the Oklahoma Arts Conference ends on October 14! Julie and I would love to see you at our panel, “Native Artists Speak: Oral History as a Resource for Education and Advocacy in the Arts,” on Wednesday, October 26, 2016, 3:15-4:45pm.

 

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Art Criticism in Oklahoma

Students in last spring’s “Art Since 1960” course spent the semester exploring the role of art critics in modern and contemporary society. Their final assignment was to analyze the role that art criticism plays in Oklahoma today. Where are the art critics? Who is their audience? What are they saying? Although these essays aren’t directly connected to the OSU Museum of Art or its collection, I believe that healthy art criticism is a vital part of an ecosystem in which museums can thrive.

The student essays shared here have been edited for length. Students’ content and overall arguments have not been altered. This week’s essay is by Madi Green.

This is not a state one associates with a hopping art culture. While there is an abundance of art-literate citizens, thanks to several universities with healthy art programs, the average Joe in Oklahoma is going to have had little exposure to the modern art world. They will probably have heard of Jackson Pollock, and could most likely identify a Picasso, but most people would struggle to name more than five artists working today. We are reliant on our local media to give us a window into the Oklahoma art scene. Luckily, several of the major mainstream news outlets in Oklahoma offer venues for discussion about art. These publications, along with those entirely devoted to art, are geared toward informing, entertaining, and including the “any reader.” At the same time, art criticism in Oklahoma fails to hold much weight in regards to critiques of work.

Henri Matisse's 1919 oil painting "L’Algérienne (Algerian Woman)" will be featured in the exhibition “Matisse in His Time: Masterworks of Modernism from the Centre Pompidou, Paris," opening in 2016 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Image provided by Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Henri Matisse’s 1919 oil painting “L’Algérienne (Algerian Woman)” will be featured in the exhibition “Matisse in His Time: Masterworks of Modernism from the Centre Pompidou, Paris,” opening in 2016 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Image provided by Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Were you to start looking for an opening into the Oklahoma art world, many would begin with its major publications. But while the opinion sections of The Oklahoman and OK Magazine carry many movie reviews, it is more difficult to find a critique of a gallery opening, and even more so to find an article discussing an issue in the art world. Such articles tend to be online, and they promote the art world and exhibitions in Oklahoma rather than being critical essays on the content of those exhibitions. These articles are all very similar. They contain enough technical language and description of the message of the exhibitions that the informed reader feels teased about the prospects of the works, and the uninformed viewer is spoon fed bite-sized nuggets of lingo that make them feel like they are part of the conversation of the art world, without feeling intimidated.

In OK Magazine’s article, “Once in a Lifetime,” author Paul Fairchild uses a series of flattering quotes from the curator and exciting language to give the viewers a sense that they know what the show is about. He suggests that Jackson Pollock’s rarely-seen work will give visitors a new perspective on his career, and sprinkles in a few lines that make it feel like we are having a discussion about the artist: “Looking at a Pollock painting is a dynamic, participatory experience. He gives back to you the experience of looking. Just give in to what your eye wants to do.” But Fairchild doesn’t actually have a discussion about why Pollock’s work is so revolutionary, or why visitors will get a “sense of the most experimental and radical point in Pollock’s career.” What makes it so radical and experimental? The writers are so focused on appealing to everyone that they leave out too much information for the uniformed reader to understand the “why” behind the points they’re making, and too little specified discussion for the informed reader to get their teeth into.

Understandably, this is a promotion for an exhibition and therefore only needs to excite the public and feel accessible to anyone who views it. As an article online, though, it is not fettered to the word count restrictions of a column, but rather is a more open platform for the kinds of informed discussion that an uninformed public needs.

An Oklahoman article falls equally short and highlights the issue I’m describing. It is announcing that the Oklahoma City Museum of Art will be the sole North American museum to showcase a huge exhibition on loan from the Centre Pompidou. Brandy McDonnell, author of the article, presses that this is a mind-blowing honor, a huge endeavor for the museum, and a break into the larger art world for Oklahoma—all the while ignoring why this is such a huge deal. She does go into a little detail on the impact Matisse had on the art world, and stress the story this exhibition will tell through the history of modern art, beyond the capabilities of the Museum’s permanent collection. She mentions that many famous works will be shown and then name-drops Picasso and Matisse, but she does not describe the impact that Matisse had, or why his work is “a bridge between the 19th and the 20th centuries” (McDonnell, 2015). We might guess that this important exhibition from Paris is probably going to include influential artists, so isn’t it important that the reader know why?

The language in both these reviews is intentionally vague, written with the purpose of drawing in crowds to see the works they are reviewing/promoting and trying not to alienate. But readers are going to feel more invested in the work, more interested in the subject, and be more likely to become a devoted reader/exhibition visitor if they know about what they are going to see, and why it’s so cool and important. The message of the exhibition will still be surprising and impressive if you give the reader some context on which to base their visit. The best way to create a thriving art world filled with the conversations artists, galleries, and museums are striving to have is to actually educate the people you want to include in this world.

There are some individuals attempting to provide the level of critical thinking we are attempting to convey. Tulsa World Scene Writer James D. Watts Jr. contributes to the Tulsa World blog, writing incredibly detailed reviews for plays, ballets, and musical performances. He is very interested in giving the reader the motivation to go see what he has seen by describing its best features. In his review “ARTS: Review of Tulsa Ballet’s ‘Masters of Dance,’” he dissects each aspect—the music, the movement, the dancers—into a snippet of what makes each one amazing and how it lends to the entire performance. You don’t feel like the ballet has been spoiled or can no longer surprise you, you don’t feel talked down to, and you have a better understanding of why this performance is supposed to be amazing, why you should go see it, and what you should look for while you are watching it. If only this level of information could be applied to reviews of exhibitions and discussions on the art world/art movements as a whole in Oklahoma.

These articles fulfil their purpose to entertain and inform (at least to the extent you know what will be displayed when), and they relate to anyone who would pick up the publications. However, they lack real critical bite. They make little statement on the works themselves and essentially act as hype man for the exhibitions they are promoting. The art world is still burgeoning in Oklahoma. We need critics and criticism that are going to inform and educate the readers so that they are active participants in a discussion on the level of the cities whose art culture we are inspired by.  Our acquisition of the Matisse exhibition is proof that Oklahoma possesses the facilities to have a large and inspired art culture. We’ve produced many well-known artists and influencers. We have a healthy collectors market. We have the capacity to become a big fish in the art world, but to do so we need the people participating to be educated and able to hold their own discussions. The first step to that is promoting it and providing it in the media.

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Contemporary Art Criticism in Oklahoma

Students in this spring’s “Art Since 1960” course spent the semester exploring the role of art critics in modern and contemporary society. Their final assignment for the semester was to analyze the role that art criticism plays in Oklahoma today. Where are the art critics? Who is their audience? What are they saying? Although these essays aren’t directly connected to the OSU Museum of Art or its collection, I believe that healthy art criticism is a vital part of an ecosystem in which museums can thrive.

The student essays shared here have been edited for length. Students’ content and overall arguments have not been altered. This week’s essay is by Dan Pham.

There is no real art criticism in reviews or discussions of art published in Oklahoma. Published pieces seem geared towards getting audiences to come out and see the art rather than being true critical analyses of the artwork itself. Oklahoma publications should not be afraid to give real thought and criticism to their analyses, rather than simply describing what the artwork looks like. Strong art criticism would intrigue readers, encouraging them to go out to see the artwork themselves rather than reading a description about what an art piece looks like.

"Pandora's Box" by George Bogart. See article link for more.

“Pandora’s Box” by George Bogart. See article link for more.

The Oklahoman article, “Oklahoma City Art Exhibit Looks at Teacher’s ‘Legacy,’” is geared towards an audience that has some background in art but is not seeking a personal opinion from the writer. The writer, John Brandenburg, seeks to inspire the viewers to view the works of art by explaining about a select few pieces in detail. There is a lack of true art criticism in this article. Brandenburg gives a brief review over the artist’s background, and he goes into great detail about the pieces and the exhibition. What he lacks is criticism of the pieces or his opinion on the show as a whole. He is just explaining the exhibition, artist, and pieces to the audience. It is as though he hopes to promote George Bogart’s exhibition in support of the deceased artist and his students, valuing that promotion more than his opinions about the exhibition.

The Oklahoman covers over a lot of exhibitions in Oklahoma but the articles are not geared towards being art criticism. Instead, they are a way to encourage the audience to visit the exhibition. The Oklahoman, a general-interest publication, does not have a single person dedicated towards all things art on their staff. John Brandenburg is an artist himself, but he is not the only writer for art-related news for the Oklahoman. The Oklahoman focuses purely on the contemporary side of art and on what is current instead of art history. As with many news publications, they do allow the public to voice their opinions but due to the lack of criticism in most of their art related publications, the conversation between the writer and the public is usually minimal.

An article about artist Zipora Fried, “When Subconscious Hits the Surface, and Other Big Stories,” by Matt Williams, was published in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of ArtDesk. This magazine is geared towards those with an art background, and this article does a better job than the Oklahoman in giving the audience some perspective as to why and how the artist made her pieces. It explores more into the artist’s mind rather than simply describing the pieces. The article describes a little backstory to Fried’s pieces and it allows the audience to feel more connected and have a better understanding towards the artist’s pieces. The writer mentions how Fried “possesses a freed perception of her art, one without the boundaries of conventional human thought [and] in this, through indifference or generosity, through intent to create meaning or not, Fried leads viewers to a wild and beautiful place.” The writer wants to introduce the audience to new art and to give the audience a better understanding of Fried’s work. This article offers a good sense of description towards the pieces and a little critical judgment. There is a sense of the author in the article but it still leans towards the descriptive side. ArtDesk invites comments and letters to the editor in a section at the end of the magazine.

Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition’s Art Focus Oklahoma recently published an article titled “Adam Lanman’s Structure-scapes,” by Emily Newman. The audience reading this magazine holds an interest in art, and Art Focus not only introduces new contemporary artists but also has articles that survey art history for readers to gain broader knowledge of the subject. Newman’s goal for this art criticism article is on the descriptive side but it thoroughly allows the audience to have an understanding of the artist’s goals with his pieces. Her article resembles Williams’ article in ArtDesk in the sense that although there are bits of their opinions in the writing, it still doesn’t read fully as art criticism. Newman is encouraging the audience to experience new art and to support local galleries by going to see Lanman’s exhibition.

OVAC also has a blog that writes art articles over contemporary artists. “Access, History and Identity: the work of Mandy Messina,” gives a great overview of Messina and her intentions for her pieces. This blog post is for audiences interested in going to see Messina’s show who hope to have a better background about her work. It encourages the readers to view her exhibition and supports local galleries. There is also a lack of art criticism in this article as it focuses more on the artist’s backstory and intentions rather than the writer’s response to the pieces [editor’s note: the author of the post isn’t credited by name]. The blog posts on OVAC’s blog focus on contemporary artists and lack critical judgments. The same goes for Art+Write+Now’s article “Positively Red,” by Laur Reese, over artist Ashley Griffith. There are multiple writers for this blog and they offer few critical judgments, focusing instead on describing their subjects and artists’ intentions when making their art pieces.

Most recently published articles about art in Oklahoma publications lack critical judgment. Yes, most of them support local galleries and encourage their audiences to view the artist’s exhibitions — but the writers’ voices and opinions are lost within the promotion of the artist. Overall, they all support local galleries, encourage their audience to find the context of the artist’s pieces, and gear themselves towards contemporary art.

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Art Criticism in Oklahoma

Students in this spring’s “Art Since 1960” course spent the semester exploring the role of art critics in modern and contemporary society. Their final assignment for the semester was to analyze the role that art criticism plays in Oklahoma today. Where are the art critics? Who is their audience? What are they saying? Although these essays aren’t directly connected to the OSU Museum of Art or its collection, I believe that healthy art criticism is a vital part of an ecosystem in which museums can thrive.

The student essays shared here have been edited for length. Students’ content and overall arguments have not been altered. This week’s essay is by Nicole McMurry.

There are many different publications that originate in Oklahoma, including the Oklahoma Gazette, The O’Collegian (O’Colly), ArtDesk, and Tulsa People. Some have a central focus of art, while others are general interest publications, but all of them talk about art in some form or fashion. None of these venues have a great deal of art criticism and instead just focus on informing their readers about local, statewide, and occasionally national art, artists, exhibitions, and art events. These publications aim to inform their readers—local Oklahomans and tourists alike—instead of analyzing their subject.

quilt show

Seth Spillman and Tabbi Burwell examine the Quilts and Color from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at Oklahoma City Museum of Art. (Garett Fisbeck for the Oklahoma Gazette; see article link below.)

The smallest of the publications I have selected is the O’Colly, a student-run newspaper that prints three times a week during the school year. The O’Colly is not directly affiliated with Oklahoma State University, but is run by its students and is centered around the university. This newspaper is both in print and online. I believe most readers read it in print form. The O’Colly is not art specific; its sections include: News, Sports, Opinion, Weekend, and Multimedia. There are occasionally art-related articles that reflect the arts on OSU’s campus. Whether or not the O’Colly features articles concerning art is based on student writers’ interest—there is no dedicated art staff or section for it. In What’s The Tapestry Hanging in The OSU Student Union? Artist Bring African Exhibit to Stillwater, student Brandon Havens writes about an artist, Olaniyi Akindiya, whose work was on display at both the OSU Student Union and The OSU Museum of Art from September 2015 to January 2016.

This article, like other art related articles featured in the O’Colly, does not contain art criticism. Because they are most likely written by English majors who are not particularly educated in the arts, O’Colly articles simply inform readers (students of OSU) about the art on campus and in Stillwater. The O’Colly often interviews students and staff to give more information and offer some personal opinions. This article states,

“Matt Williams, sociology senior, likes the tapestry in the Student Union. ‘I agree it’s a good way to get people to come see the exhibit because when you give students a piece, they want to see more.’ Williams said. ‘I like getting a piece of art exhibits because I can’t always make it to the exhibit, so it’s nice to have one piece where I can see it.’”

This article, as explained by this quote, is not focused on art criticism and is instead about giving students information about an artist and the opportunity to see his work. The O’Colly offers no critical judgment of art and can discuss anything from student work, campus exhibitions, exhibitions featured at the OSU Museum of Art, to other arts related opportunities. The O’Colly aims to educate students about what’s happening on campus and around Stillwater.

Another local Oklahoma publication is Tulsa People, which has a bigger audience than the O’Colly. Tulsa People is basically a guide to Tulsa aimed at both tourists and locals. It is a monthly general interest magazine with various sections including People, Food & Wine, Arts & Culture, Life & Style, Home & Garden, and Things To Do. Under the Arts & Culture section, there are a few writers. This section offers information on local art, artists, exhibitions, fashion, performances, and other local arts related stuff.

 

108 contemp yarn

Karl Siewert; Romy Owens, artist and project leader; Krystle Brewer, interim executive director for 108 Contemporary; Ellen McGivern, gallery coordinator; and Isabelle Phillips seam together submissions for the knitted mural that covers 108 Contemporary’s façade. (Evan Taylor for Tulsa People; see article link below.)

As in the O’Colly, art criticism does not play a role in Tulsa People. Because the magazine’s purpose is to inform readers about Tulsa and what it offers, art criticism would not be fitting. The magazine is promoting Tulsa; specifically in the Arts & Culture section, it promotes local artists, exhibitions, music, and arts related events. There are at least a few articles every month under this section of the magazine. The article “Yarn Bombing the Prairie,” was written to introduce and inform readers about a local artist who, with the help of many knitters across Oklahoma, covered the side of a building in a “scene of blue sky and green grass, representing how urban sprawl has slowly consumed the Oklahoma prairie.” This article is merely an informative piece, letting readers know of an opportunity to see local art and introducing them to a new artist.

The Oklahoma Gazette is a newspaper whose audience is local Oklahomans and whose interests are quite general; their sections include News, Music, Life, Arts, Food, Programs, and Media. Under the Arts section there are a few writers that post articles at least every week, if not a couple arts related articles a week. In looking through the Arts section I saw a lot of different writers, which makes me think there is no staff dedicated to this section. In “Early Quilt Makers Inspired a Fleet of Modern Artists, and Oklahoma City Museum of Art Shows Us How,” Kerry Myers (one of about seven writers under this section) writes only to inform readers about the Quilts and Color From the Museum of Fine Arts exhibit. She briefly describes the works and how they came about, and includes the date, museum address, and price of entrance.

This article, like other art articles featured in the Oklahoma Gazette, is aimed towards a wide audience and does not include art criticism for a couple of reasons: 1) the writers at this newspaper are probably not educated in art and are simply writing about the opportunity to view it rather than “digging in to” the content, and 2) the newspaper is a general interest newspaper and does not focus on art itself and therefore not art criticism. The arts section of the Oklahoma Gazette discusses local exhibitions, local and visiting international artists, and schools, but offers no critique. They write mostly about modern art, however, if there is an exhibition that displays older art they will not shy away from writing about it—they are not biased towards contemporary art.

Lastly, I will look at ArtDesk, a print magazine that is also offered online. ArtDesk prints new issues twice-yearly and is devoted to the contemporary arts. On their website they state, “We focus on events, exhibitions, and education about will keep readers informed about need-to-know art happenings during each issue cycle.” They also wish to educate everybody; they want to reach people outside of the art capitals of our country. This magazine has several sources including Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and worldwide. The audience for this newspaper is a bigger array of people than the previous venues because it is more of a national magazine, not completely local. It does support local artists from each of its sources (TX, OK, CO, etc.) and is mostly about different artists. This magazine writes about artists and their work and is aimed at introducing readers to new artists and supporting local artists. Like all of these venues, ArtDesk does not feature any art criticism section and is only meant to support artists and educate readers about contemporary art.

Whether it is a newspaper or magazine, the publications in Oklahoma do not seem to value art criticism much. None of the article from the publications I looked at hinted at any art criticism and were more focused on educating readers about exhibitions, shows, or artists. Some of these publications were art specific, like ArtDesk, and other were general interest publications who only occasionally featured art related articles like Tulsa People, the Oklahoma Gazette, and the O’Colly.

 

Works Cited

Banzet-Ellis, Gail. “Yarn Bombing The Praire,” Tulsa People, Dec. 2015.

Havens, Brandon. “What’s the tapestry hanging in the OSU Student Union? Artist brings    African exhibit to Stillwater,” O’Colly, 29 Sept. 2015.

Myers, Kerry. “Early Quilt Makers Inspired a Fleet of Modern Artists, and Oklahoma        City Museum of Modern Art Shows Us How.” Oklahoma Gazette, 11 Dec. 2015.

 

 

 

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