Visual

Rattlebone

Ric Gendron’s multicultural attractions

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Among the cultural attractions of the Skagit Valley, none shines brighter than the Museum of Northwest Art (MoNA) in La Conner. And “Rattlebone,” their current exhibit, shines brightly too. You need to see their stunning selection of paintings by Washington artist Ric Gendron.

Gendron, a member of the Colville and Umatilla tribes, paints figuratively, but with a strong expressionist impulse.  His canvases, which are rich with fresh, multicultural references, transcend the usual repertoire of symbols you might associate with Pacific Northwest art. 

For example, in the eponymous painting entitled “Rattlebone,” a muscular figure splashed with red twists away from the viewer. Is he headless, draped in dark hair or in shadow? Does he writhe in a dance or twist in pain? Whichever it is, the image burns into the mind.

When you look at Gendron’s “Columbus Day,” it pays to know that Native Americans don’t celebrate the October holiday as a happy event. Across the top of the canvas, there are three metallic crosses. Beneath, the outline of a coyote framing a gleaming human skull. Both mouths fuse into a band of ragged teeth. There are many such teeth in Gendron’s canvases. Think about them. Teeth bite and tear—teeth flash when mouths make false promises.

Fortunately, torment is not the dominant mood of the collection; Gendron offers delicacy, beauty and whimsy, as well. But ambiguity is never far away.

There are many portraits in which the subject regards us without expression, as if to say: furnish your own agenda. “Gentle Giant” may be a self-portrait of the artist as tourist on a street in Mexico. His unlikely companions are a coyote, a naked baby and a schoolboy.  Are these his psychological baggage? The composition is ingenious and fascinating.  Everything is harmonious and masterfully drawn, but the effect is surreal.

In the lovely painting, “The Way Home,” four handsomely clad Indians ride across an autumn meadow framed by snow-capped mountains and lush forest. But each carries a delicate, oriental parasol! Is this a subtle joke or a symbolic melding of the “Indians” of the West with the Indians of the East?

For many viewers, “Angels” is their favorite. In a nighttime garden, three young girls dance beneath a starry, indigo sky. One, winged, is the source of angelic light. It may be Gendron’s vision of a visit by his granddaughter from the afterlife. Nothing could be more graceful, delicate and moving.

Adults and children alike will appreciate this important and fascinating visual experience. In the gallery upstairs, MoNA offers viewers a happy selection of paintings and sculpture from the permanent collection, entitled “Geology.” These, too, are worth your attention, although in some cases the connection to “geology” may be only in the mind of the curator.

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