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Native American Art. Breaking the stereotypes

ANYONE with the antiquated concept that Indian art is mainly pots and tepee paintings will get a good shake-up at the current exhibition, ``What is Native American Art?'' The show portrays Indian creativity as a vibrant force, rolling along pell-mell with mainstream contemporary art. There are ``isms'' galore - Cubism, Expressionism, Romanticism, Abstract Illusionism - while subject matter often speaks in metaphors and symbolism.

In no way is the show tied to an anthropological approach. Instead, it's art for art's sake, with a welcome weight on painting and sculpture from the late '40s until now. Of course, you'll see ceremonial arrowheads, paintings on elk hide, sumptuous beadwork, and the like, but only because these are yesterday's ``art,'' not because they're crucial links in Indian culture.

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The 146-object exhibition, which took nearly five years to plan and mount, is traveling under the auspices of the Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, Okla., and will continue through July 11 at the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center.

Although Indian art often runs apace with contemporary trends, it's seldom shown in the American and European mainstream, according to Edwin Wade, Philbrook's chief curator. Few Indian artists make a name in the big time, their paintings rubbing frames with Anglo artwork in galleries and museums east of the Mississippi.

And that's understandable. ``There's steady cash when Native Americans are doing decorative or ethnic products, but when they take the lonely step into individual artistry, they not only have to compete with a world market, but it's difficult to go home again,'' says Dr. Wade, who formerly was assistant director and curator of collections at Harvard's Peabody Museum.

Because many tribes emphasize cooperation and the subordination of self to the group, ``being an individualist and an Indian often ends up in a powerful conflict,'' he says. To market one's art, a Native American must move into the spotlight. ``He must play the circuit, do interviews, give lectures. He also has to put a great deal into convincing his own tribal society that he hasn't sold out, that he doesn't think he's too good to live a simple life style in a pueblo or whatever. It's incredibly difficult'' to straddle the cultural fence, Wade says.

What's occuring now in the Native American movement is a split, says the curator. Various Pueblo potters, Apache basketmakers, and Navajo rug weavers still wish to work beneath the ethnic blanket and have agreed to maintain a degree of ``traditional'' standardization, gaining recognition as ``quality-directed folk artists'' within their tribes. But other Native Americans have pulled away from any standardization to make visionary statements of their own. Rather than Indian artists, they're artists who happen to be Indian. The exhibition embraces both these groups.

``We did the exhibition to dispel a series of stereotypes typically associated with Native American art,'' the curator explains. ``It isn't always primitive, and thus naive, simple, and childlike. It doesn't necessarily focus on the sacred nature of the world. And, most important, there's no `right' kind of Indian art, a proper and legitimate form called `traditional.' What young artists are doing today is absolutely authentic, even though they deal with contemporary urban issues. Earlier art dealt with current issues, too: It was cutting-edge contemporary when a Kiowa in 1885 did a drawing showing a blue-coat soldier.''

Clearly, the show throws out all notions that Indian art must wear yesterday's paint and parameters to be authentic. But this view of Indian art hasn't yet earned unanimity. For years, a stylized type of easel painting was heralded as the traditional and authentic Indian art. Today, some artists, dealers, buyers, and curators still take this approach. Reflecting shades of American Art Deco, the style emphasizes flatly laid colors, clean lines, and pictorial documentation of daily life, a classic example being Harrison Begay's ``Night Chant Ceremonial Hunt.'' This ``traditional'' mode evolved under the tutelage of Edith Mahier and Oscar Jacobson at the University of Oklahoma in the 1920s, and under Dorothy Dunn at the Santa Fe Indian School in the '30s. Even in the '50s, ``traditional'' standards dictated rules for art competitions. And avant-garde Indian artists who dared to step outside the style generally found themselves outside the exhibition halls.

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When Oscar Howe, a Sioux and former student of Dunn's, returned from World War II, he staged his own revolt against the stylized regime. Labeled a heretic because of his Cubistic work, ``Howe was rejected from various competitions because European design techniques weren't considered a legitimate course for Native American artistic evolution,'' Wade says. But the Philbrook Center bought Howe's ``Victory Dance'' and ``The Blind,'' both displayed at the show. ``The Philbrook still had tight judging criteria back then,'' says Wade, ``but fortunately its purchase awards were open to fresh approaches.''

The stylized ``traditional'' approach was finally forced to make room for individualism, which burst forth in the '60s. Catalyst for the movement was Fritz Scholder, who maintained that Indian artists work in a worldwide village and should be free to speak the tongue of many styles. His monotype ``Deer at Laguna'' characterizes his nonconformity by breaking away from the Bambi-style renditions of previous decades.

Indeed, the exhibition abounds with works by contemporary artists making their own traditions for tomorrow.

Funded by Phillips Petroleum Company, the show features works on loan from 13 public and private collections in Oklahoma. Forty tribes are represented. The show will be at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City (Aug. 24 to Nov. 16), and at the Heard Museum, Phoenix (Dec. 9 to March 2, 1988).

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