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Art Spawned by a Clash of Cultures

Vibrant works by mixed-blood painters and sculptors from Northwestern tribes resonate American Indian tradition, indignity over injustice, and pride in separateness. ARTS IN SEATTLE: PAINTING

THE striking images came from a world that is disconcertingly strange to most of us - a world surrounded by 20th-century America, yet separate from it. ``Crossed Cultures: Five Contemporary Northwest Artists,'' a recent exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, presented the painting and sculpture of contemporary tribal artists from the United States and Canada, artists whose highly original images have been influenced by the clash between American Indian traditions and the dominant values of North America.

The roomful of works resonated with a reverence for the earth, indignity at decades of injustice, concern over the widespread problems of alcoholism and lack of purpose on the reservation, and an awakening sense of pride in separateness. Many of the pieces take issue with mainstream greed and materialism.

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The Seattle Art Museum deserves credit for launching an artistic dialogue over such concerns with its ongoing ``Documents Northwest'' program, a series of special exhibitions by regional artists that complement the museum's fine permanent collection and special traveling shows. ``Crossed Cultures'' was the second group exhibition in the series. The five artists whose work was chosen for it are of mixed ancestry from Canadian and Alaskan tribes.

Lawrence Paul is a Canadian Indian, whose vibrant surreal landscapes display an imaginative recycling of traditional images from totem poles, masks, fabric, and beadwork.

Dominating one of his large acrylics, for example - a painting called ``The Universe Is So Big the White Man Keeps Me on the Reservation'' - is a jagged riverbed and towering trees with foliage created from totem symbols. These draw the eye through a meadow of fluorescent turquoise to mountains in the form of multicolored, four-legged beasts. White clouds sweep across a pale blue sky. Two human figures stand idly and insignificantly in the foreground.

``I document issues and inequities as I see them: land claims, uranium mining, acid rain, ... worldwide pollution,'' writes Mr. Paul, in material accompanying the exhibition. His comment echoes themes presented by several of the other artists.

Edna Davis Jackson spent her childhood in Alaska, where her father, a member of the Tlingit tribe, was a fisherman. Her winters were spent at school in her mother's home state of Michigan. She says the collages she makes from molded cedar paper allow her to ``stay in touch with two important elements'' from her childhood - ``the water and the woods.''

One of her sculptural masks on view here, ``Cedar Woman Spirit (For All the Trees We've Logged),'' uses a Tlingit motif embossed on the thick, textured, brown-hued paper. Another, with a serene face fashioned in the same way, is entitled ``Dawn's Mask.''

James Lavadour, a mixed-blood member of the Walla Walla tribe who works as a land-use planner on an Oregon reservation, does oil paintings on sequential canvas panels. Like Paul's paintings, Mr. Lavadour's more traditional landscapes endow natural objects with animal features.

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``Thunderhead and Bloody Face,'' for instance, depicts a mountain range in naturalistic green-brown brushstrokes - but the mountains have sinister, toothy faces, and the gray-blue sky stares back at the viewer with a pair of haunting eyes. ``The earth is not just real estate or bleary background outside of the car window,'' Lavadour writes, ``but the framework of the source and substance of life.''

In quite a different vein, Larry Beck, who grew up here in Seattle and later visited his mother's Alaskan birthplace, uses mirrors, feathers, shiny cast aluminum, and found objects to create space-age variations on the traditional spirit masks made by the Yupik-speaking peoples. While emphasizing the contrasts between today's slick, high-tech surfaces and the richly textured and subtly colored examples of craftsmanship that inspired the pieces, the masks bring a welcome playfulness to an otherwise serious show.

Before moving to Anchorage at age 11, Susie Bevins Qimmiqsak lived in two of Alaska's remote Inupiat settlements. Working in wood, Plexiglas, and aluminum, she fashions hanging sculptural figures in which the glossiness of the modern materials, as in Beck's work, contrasts dramatically with the traditional wood base. Her latest sculpture, ``People in Peril Bound by Alcohol,'' consists of four armless human silhouettes, on which she overlays black, silver, and white outlines of ribs, skulls, and internal organs, as if to give us an X-ray view beneath the skin. Produced in response to a newspaper series that spotlighted alcohol abuse among Alaskan Indians, this sculpture sends an unmistakable message: Dependence on liquor erodes both the substance and quality of life.

Together, the pieces in ``Crossed Cultures'' gave a visual dimension to some of the issues of deep concern to today's Native American artists. This is art that cries out for the caring of a mainstream majority that is too often oblivious.

Next in the ``Documents Northwest'' series is ``Figures of Translucence,'' an exhibition featuring four Pacific Northwest glass artists, opening tomorrow and continuing through Aug. 13. Dramatic growth in Seattle's cultural scene prompted the Monitor to send arts editor Bruce Manuel there to sample the city's arts organizations. This is the second of several reports from that trip.

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