A knockout

David Hoppe

Into the Fray

Eiteljorg Museum

Through Jan. 29

Work by Tanis Maria S'eiltin (Tlingit) 'Savage Apparel,' 2004 Cardboardm beeswax, beaver fur, leather, bear claw, metal, fish skin, sinew. Collection of the Eiteljorg Museum

For the past eight years, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Arts, with the financial support of the Lilly Endowment, has been identifying, exhibiting and acquiring works by leading Native American artists from the United States and Canada under the aegis of the Eiteljorg Fellowship program. To date, there have been four rounds of this biennial feast.

Works by the fourth and latest round of artists went on display last weekend. This year's show is called Into the Fray. Once again, as in past years, it's a knockout.

Eiteljorg Curator of Contemporary Art Jennifer Complo McNutt writes that "Using the framework or structure understood by mainstream culture, to hang new words or ideas on a familiar grid, that is operating in the fray ... Whether their artwork redefines the canon of beauty or presents a poignant social/political reality, indigenous artists greet the adversarial as opportunity for change, inclusion, articulation."

What I think McNutt's getting at here is the odd, if not perverse, way in which the mainstream art world has managed to hold the work of many of the Eiteljorg Fellows at an ethnographic distance. Critics from the taste-making national and international art publications haven't made these biennial openings part of their regular travel plans. Shows like In the Fray seem to take place in a kind of niche that remains slightly beyond the pale of what the mavens of contemporary art consider cool.

That says a lot more about what passes these days for the contemporary art scene than it does about the work of these artists, which, for the most part, is richly rewarding.

What truly sets the best of this work apart from the great majority of American contemporary art one encounters today is the abiding sense that it proceeds from an actual culture. The majority of Eiteljorg Fellows, including most of the artists in this show, create art within the context of a world in which history, storytelling, a connection to ancestors, spiritual pathways linked to nature, as well as genuine outsider identity and a firsthand understanding of the meaning of resistance to social and political forces beyond their control have real meaning. These aren't people who get hung up on the meaning of beauty. They know it when they see it - and they seize it when they can. Their work has a depth and resonance not available in most suburbs.

The show opens with a painting by James Lavadour. Lavadour seems to understand that what's false about conventional landscape painting is its insistence on presenting a single, fixed point of view when the land itself is actually vast and in a state of flux. In essence he's coming at the problem of landscape space and time the way the cubists went at still life. Lavadour does it with panels that are, at once, abstract and loaded with repetitive, suggestive imagery of mountain ranges, canyons, power lines. "Naming Tanager," a large work that incorporates fire imagery, and "Bridge," the painting that meets the eye like a power chord when you first enter the exhibition, are a tour de force.

The same might be said for the three-dimensional works offered by C. Maxx Stevens. Her installation "Three Graces" consists of domes that could be women's skirts or lodges built from woven wood and supplemented with hair, feathers, photos, light. These iconic forms are both primal and sophisticated. They are rooted in specific stories and experiences, yet achieve the archetypal.

Tanis Maria S'eiltin's installation, "Resisting Acts of Distillation," may be the most ambitious piece in the show. Dozens of vials containing what appear to be bodily fluids, mainly blood, hang in space along with hand prints, the image of a warrior's face, scraps of dried flesh and fur. It's a walk-in metaphor for lineage, violence done and answered. S'eiltin also offers a collection of small, exquisitely constructed fetishes; just naming the materials she utilizes may be enough to take your imagination to another place: baleen, fish skin, honeycomb, metal, beeswax, railroad spikes, rawhide, bait boxes and twigs.

Other artists on view include the sinuous carvings of lifetime honoree John Hoover and the elegant quilts and blanket art of Marie Watt. The only off-note is sounded by Harry Fonseca. His derivative drip paintings and minimalist exercises seem intended to participate with what he may believe is a more cosmopolitan art discourse, but the effect turns out to be provincial. Does this mean that Fonseca isn't "Indian" enough? No, only that his work lacks the direct engagement with the world - the "fray" - so abundantly delivered by the other artists in the room.

Into the Fray will be at the Eiteljorg, 500 W. Washington St., until Jan. 29. 636-WEST, www.eiteljorg.org.

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