Culture Clash

Indigenous Influences at MoNA

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Currently showing at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art (MoNA), “Indigenous Influences” is a visual treat and educational too.

Paintings and prints by iconic Northwest artists—often called the “Mystics”—are juxtaposed with indigenous artifacts to suggest how artists might have been inspired by the native culture of the region. 

But we find two currents cutting across each other. Curator Regan Shrumm ransacked the museum for every plausible example of cultural borrowing. And Cowlitz tribal member Elissa Washuta condemns each example as “violence…an act rooted in the colonial policies designed to eliminate us.”

Here in the Pacific Northwest, every tourist shop offers cheap imitations of the two-dimensional “formline” tribal art of northern Vancouver Island. (Even the Seahawks’ logo was copied from a Kwakwaka’wakw mask.)

So, who are the northwest “mystic” artists? Generally this designation is applied to Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Guy Anderson, and Kenneth Callahan. In the exhibit, works by Philip McCracken and Helmi Juvonen are included.

McCracken’s woodcut print, “Spirit Fish,” uses the distinctive, tribal “formline” pattern. Juvonen copied native artwork for museums, attended tribal ceremonies and became close friends with leaders of the Tulalip, Yakima, Makah, and Utes tribes.

Her linoleum print, “Tlingit Inside House Post,” is a fine example of anthropological documentation. Alas, Juvonen had a whimsical side and treated some tribal designs as cartoons. (See “Indian Canoe” and “Untitled.”)

One focal point of the exhibit is a bentwood box made by a Tlingit carver of Southeast Alaska, with the characteristic thick outlines of black, red and blue. Nearby hang four panels by Guy Anderson, of which two, “Night of the Whales” and “Fishing Boat,” employ geometric shapes similar to those on the Tlingit box.

A small painting by Mark Tobey, “Woman in a Market Stall,” is next to the bentwood box. It’s also painted in reds and blues with black outlines. But who can say whether it was inspired by indigenous art, or by El Greco or Georges Rouault—both of whom used black outlines.

There are also four examples of Tobey’s unique “white writing” style (see “Ecclesiastical Phantasy” and “Meander Series”). Shrumm is careful not to say that the “white writing” derives from native art. But she points out the similarity between Tobey’s avowed mysticism and the hypnotic effect the Coast Salish experienced when using their spindle whorls to prepare thread for weaving. 

Most scholars believe Tobey’s “white writing” was inspired by Chinese calligraphy. Others place it in the contemporary midcentury development of “gestural abstraction”—influenced by totemic practices, surrealism, ancient Olmec culture, gestalt theory, cave paintings, etc.

Shrumm suggests that Kenneth Callahan’s “The Clashing Rocks,” and “Creation” derived from petroglyphs he might have seen as a child in the Columbia gorge. “The Clashing Rocks” shows three nude humans standing in a boat, possibly looking into a cave.  The human figures are finely modeled and resemble the work of William Blake or Henri Fuseli, nothing like any known petroglyphs. 

Was Callahan remembering some childhood experience, or was he caught up in the excitement of the discovery of sensational cave art at Lascaux only a few years earlier, which the world was still coming to grips with? You decide.

Nearby on the west wall, the display takes a loving, inclusive turn. Callahan’s marvelous abstract, “Creation,” and James Washington Jr.’s fascinating granite sculpture, “Kinship of Life,” together embrace the visitor with a vision of the interconnectedness of all creation: mineral as well as biologic. 

This is what art is all about: beauty and symbolic reference to the divine. Washington, a self-taught African-American painter and sculptor, has been called the most expressly spiritual of all in the “Northwest school.” But no one alleges that he stole ideas from Native Americans.

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