Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened show at a museum outside New York City, a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.
Our greatest director recently said he wanted to adapt David Grann’s 2017 Killers of the Flower Moon for his latest movie because its true story constituted “a sober look at who we are as a culture.” Martin Scorsese was referring, no doubt, to the greed, racism and paranoia that led to the Osage murders of the 1920s in Oklahoma, and probably the “birth of the F.B.I.” in the book’s subtitle. These days, it must also be said that the F.B.I. aesthetic constitutes a large part of our culture. Remember when James Comey wrote a widely panned thriller novel?
A happier part of who we are as a culture involves an increased curiosity about Native American art, which is the focus of a just-opened show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington: The Land Carries Our Ancestors: Contemporary Art by Native Americans. Curator Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, who herself is the subject of a just-closed show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, strove to show that “the National Gallery of Art is engaged with making change in their system of collecting art as well as demonstrating their ability to be more inclusive in their exhibitions.”
Many of the best works in the show do originate from the NGA’s collection, among them paintings by Peter Jemison and Emmi Whitehorse. Whitehorse’s Fog Bank (2020) is an abstract work that ranges in eclectic blues, with glyphs dancing inside a haze that seems to carry Native American significance. But given the whole vibe of the work, the artist assures us not to worry about their meanings. Jemison’s Sentinels (Large Yellow) (2006) features dying flowers on a beautiful swirling landscape, and it’s as though we can feel their yellow energy leaving the world.
Other works are more prosaic. Gerald Clarke Jr. charred watercolor paper to make his Native American Art (2019), which is in nice conversation with the works I just mentioned because there’s no mysticism or any oneness with nature. It’s just a map of the contiguous United States that says “NATIVE” above and “ART” below. There’s nothing wrong with works that play into our pre-existing ideas about Native American art—Preston Singletary’s Raven Steals the Sun (2017) is pretty awesome, actually, very heavy metal—but Clarke reminds us that we should avoid thinking about this category of art too narrowly. Who is a native, after all? Why should this art be so different from the kind made by people of other races? Why should art that is made by those of different tribes, from different parts of the country, necessarily have anything in common at all?
It’s a tricky needle to thread, but Jaune Quick-to-See Smith seems to have done it.
“The Land Carries Our Ancestors” is on view at the National Gallery of Art through January 15, 2024.