Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 15, 2015
Gaylord Torrence, ed. The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2014. 320 pp. $65.00 (9780847844586)
Exhibition schedule: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO, September 19, 2014–January 11, 2015; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 9–May 10, 2015
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Arikara artist, North Dakota. Shield (ca. 1850). Buffalo rawhide, native tanned leather, pigment. Diameter: 20 inches. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: the Donald D. Jones Fund for American Indian Art, 2004.35. Photo: Jamison Miller.

On the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, a series of tipis situated alongside Claes Oldenburg and Coojse van Bruggen’s Shuttlecocks (1994) provides an intriguing glimpse of The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, an exhibition curated by Gaylord Torrence, senior curator of American Indian Art at the museum. The juxtaposition between the tents and the sculpture draws attention to their design similarities while also suggesting that tipis have become objects of American kitsch, much like Oldenburg and Van Bruggen’s badminton birdie. Despite such associations, guests are invited to enter the conical structures to observe the unique architectural design that provided shelter for many generations on the Great Plains.

The museum’s exhibition website touts: “The 140 works will reveal the accomplishments of Plains Indian artists, not only as the makers of objects that sustain tradition and embody change, but as the bearers of individual creative expression and innovation.” Overall, The Plains Indians is quite impressive, and the quality of the artworks is exceptional; however, the exhibition design and organization are antiquated, one of the few aspects of the show that invites further questioning.

Entering a small alcove at the beginning of the chronologically organized show, visitors encounter the oldest object on display, Human Effigy Pipe (100 BC–AD 100), a small sculptural work easily recognizable from its inclusion in every art-historical survey text. This section, “Ancient Ones,” features small sculpted objects and rock carvings dating from prehistory to approximately 1700.

The gallery is dimly lit, an unavoidable consequence of conservation, and the close placement of the cases is unaccommodating to large crowds, creating a claustrophobic viewing experience. Nevertheless, the placement of the objects within the cases permits an intimate examination of each work. Due to the unusual organization of the objects, it is difficult to ascertain the flow of the exhibition, requiring visitors to a pass through the space twice in order to see pieces overlooked when following the flow of traffic.

As the timeline progresses, the space becomes less confined. In the section “Following the Buffalo: 1700–1820,” exquisite buffalo hide robes and shirts stand out among the equally impressive headdresses and sculptural pieces. In particular, a robe lent by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris features sixty people and horses alongside intricate porcupine quillwork. Tool marks and fine design details are visible upon close inspection.

In the next sections, “Flourishing in Dangerous Times, 1820–1860” and “Death of a Buffalo, 1860–1880,” the era of European contact and trade emerges, made noticeable by the introduction of glass beads. The merger is evident in a Dakota Cradleboard (ca. 1840), which pictures the guardian spirit thunderbirds and other more human-like figures, possibly spirit beings.

Several exhibition labels include thumbnail images of artworks by non-Native artists. For example, a Charles Balthazar painting of an Osage warrior (1806–7) appears on the label for a Santee Dakota Roach Spreader (ca. 1830). The label thoroughly explains how Woodlands and Plains warriors used the Roach Spreader to clip feathers in their hair, and it links the object to similar devices employed by contemporary powwow performers. One can only assume that the Balthazar painting depicts this usage; however, the association is not visible in the tiny image. In another instance, a Karl Bodmer portrait of Wacochachi (1883) accompanies the work Drawing of 100 Creatures (ca. 1830), attributed to the Mesquakie artist, thereby adding historical context. Including the original artworks or engravings in the exhibition combined with more in-depth explanation regarding inclusion would have produced a more informative viewing experience. Upon referencing these artworks in the exhibition catalogue, the confusion regarding their inclusion is compounded further. For example in the Bodmer and Wacochachi entry, the spelling of Mesquakie is changed to Meskwak, and the print title—Wakusásse, Fox Man—differs from the attribution described in the label text. These spelling differences likely occur due to mistranslations of the Native language. Nevertheless, the lack of consistency between the published text and exhibition labels is problematic, to say the least.

One of the few rather empty spaces in the gallery highlights a feathered headdress once owned by the Lakota Chief Red Cloud. White angled beams of an abstracted tipi design protrude from the corner of the walls, directing the viewer’s attention to the headdress. The object’s placement accentuates its importance. As an emblematic representation of the Great Plains tribes, the aesthetically eye-catching object also adorns the cover of the exhibition catalogue.

The next section, “Living on Islands of Ancestral Land, 1880–1910,” features more fine examples of bead, quill, and leatherwork. The focus then shifts to the twentieth century with “Living in Two Worlds, 1910–1945.” Here, the viewer sees the first artworks integrating European painting techniques with Native American subject matter. The watercolor Wind Spirit (ca. 1955) by the Comanche-Kiowa artist Blackbear Bosin depicts a family riding horseback across the plains with a black tornado on the distant horizon. The flat, linear style is reminiscent of that of the Kiowa Six. However, work by any of the group’s members is conspicuously absent from the exhibition despite their influence on many of the featured artists, including Bosin and T. C. Cannon, whose painting appears in the last subdivision, “Contemporary Artistic Revival, 1965–2010.”

This final era, allocated a small corner at the end of the exhibition, comes across as an afterthought. In the last fifty years, imaginative contributions by American Indian artists hailing from the Great Plains far exceed what the exhibition suggests. Perhaps in an attempt to connect contemporary art to works from previous decades, the selected pieces only minimally depart from a functional aesthetic. Nonetheless, artists have continued the tradition of exquisite craftsmanship, and it was a pleasant surprise to see work by several female artists highlighted, including Rhonda Holy Bear’s sculpture representing a late 1880s Lakota woman, The Last Lakota Horse Raid (1991), and Jodi Gillette’s woman’s dress and accessories (2005). Both artists exhibit exemplary skill with traditional materials and design.

Wounded Knee #III (2001), a collage of newspaper clippings, historic photographs, and drawings, conveys the artist Arthur Amiotte’s personal connection to the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek where members of his family perished in 1890. In Four Season Series: Spring, Indian Summer, Winter, Fall (2006), Wendy Red Star, like Amiotte, uses contemporary media. In the series of four photographs, Red Star, dressed in traditional Crow regalia, confronts stereotypical, romantic associations of Native Americans as “one with nature.” The compositions are reminiscent of history museum dioramas featuring Native peoples, and the humorous portraits, complete with an inflatable deer, imitation grass, and plastic flowers, are staged in front of backdrops typically associated with cheap portrait studios rather than the pristine outdoors, pointing to the artifice of Native American stereotypes.

Beyond the need for more contemporary artworks, the inconsistency in the label texts is the most disconcerting part of the exhibition. More historical and taxonomical than art-historical analysis, most of the labels describe geographical and historical aspects of the Great Plains. In some instances, the texts explain in detail the meaning behind an object’s intricate design, while other labels ignore artistic merit entirely. The educational materials accompanying “Exploring the Robes” provide details regarding the use and design of the displayed robes and pose questions to the viewers. Although quite informative, these gallery guides are placed on a separate wall from the robes and are easy to miss.

The low placement of labels combined with the rather small lettering further complicates access to the artworks and informative texts. Even for younger eyes, the small fonts often require one to bend down to read the placards. While a print copy containing some of the artwork labels is available, the lack of an audio tour is unusual for this type of exhibition, especially given that visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art installation could access audio files via smartphones.

Most troubling is the inconsistent identification of the authors. More often than not, authors are only identified when a Native viewpoint is presented, perhaps as a way of including an “insider perspective.” Indeed, a number of reputable Native American scholars contributed to the exhibition catalogue and labels, adding a Native voice to the interpretive text.

In addition to the attribution inconsistency on the labels, some of the images in the catalogue are problematic. For example, a late eighteenth-century Calumet Stem and Pipe Bowl from the Upper Missouri River region are pictured as a single object, breaking from the standard display protocol for ceremonial artifacts (114–15). According to Native American cultural traditions, joining the stem and bowl is a sacred ceremonial practice; therefore, the objects are stored and presented as separate pieces, just as the pipes in the exhibition are displayed. Native American curator Joe Horse Capture criticized the show by pointing out that a number of ceremonial objects are on view without tribal consent, demonstrating a lack of cultural sensitivity to sacred objects (Joe Horse Capture, “Horse Capture: ‘Native People Have a Story to Tell—Their Own,’” Indian Country Today Media Network.com, April 25, 2015, http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/04/25/horse-capture-native-people-have-story-tell-their-own-160144).

Despite some aspects of the exhibition and catalogue needing more curatorial attention, a novel approach to exhibiting ledger books is a highpoint of the show. Large computer tablets are located alongside two open ledger books, permitting viewers to scroll through the text in its entirety and zoom in on particular scenes or figures. Mounted on a wall opposite the tomes, two monitors screen a loop of ledger pages, and benches invite lengthy contemplation of the drawings. In fact, many visitors linger in this area before moving on to the other portions of the exhibition. More in-depth information regarding the ledgers would have enhanced the unique viewing experience.

The Plains Indians situates historical and contemporary artworks in a way that illustrates that Native American culture on the Great Plains continues today without any gaps in creative expression. Unlike other recent exhibitions of Native American art, such as Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2011, The Plains Indians brings together works from both private and public collections in the United States and pieces from the Musée du quai Branly. Nevertheless, there are still holes in the representation. Canadian artists lack inclusion, as well as many modern and contemporary artists. As with most exhibitions of Native American art, the exceptional artistry behind each object speaks volumes. In The Plains Indians, emphasis is placed on the artwork. Yet in the process of contextual change from functional object to prized museum artifact, some of the cultural significance is lost in the translation.

Melynda Seaton
Curator/Museum Administrator, Great Plains Art Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.