Arts June 28, 2016

A Fresh Perspective on History

Contemporary Native American Art Delights and Surprises

On June 25, 2005, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his men of the 7th Cavalry stood planted on the rolling hills of the Little Bighorn battlefield as they faced the onslaught of Cheyenne and Sioux warriors. A week later, in Sun Valley, the same troops again looked toward the braves advancing under the command of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The figures were life-size, intricately painted wood cutouts, positioned as part of an installation by Santa Fe artist Thom Ross. Ross is one of several artists represented by Ketchum galleries whose work falls exuberantly outside the traditional scope of what most people think of as “Native American art.”

“It’s the responsibility of the artist to stay outside of the social law,” said the iconoclastic Ross. “I look at my subjects in the context of history. White artists created an Indian that never existed—the Indian who always looks so noble as he gazes off into the distance. We fawn over that crap. The truth is Sitting Bull killed more Indians than Custer. The truth is that the Indians were also pranksters and comedians.”

“Thom tries to expose the truth of the Indian experience,” said Cary Moulter, whose Kneeland Gallery exhibits Ross’ works. “He’ll paint from an eyewitness account of Indians playing ping pong or croquet, and take these moments to explore the root of what the West really means. He likes to subvert the clichéd idea of what people expect in Native American art.”

Tom Bassett, who with Sandy Gregorak owns Wood River Fine Arts, says that when people think of Western art, they usually visualize scenes of cowboys, Indians and unspoiled vistas by Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell. “People want imagery that reminds them of an unspoiled world and a simpler time,” Bassett said. “The artists we represent are inspired by Native American culture, and their work is
their interpretation of
that culture.”

Dave McGary (1958-2013) is one of those artists, and he’s considered a master of realism in depicting Native Americans. Two of his bronzes are in the permanent collection of the White House. “Dave spent a lot of time with different tribes and took the time to educate himself on what he was creating so his work has an authenticity and a feeling that’s correct,” commented Bassett. “His sculpture, ‘Emergence of the Chief’, at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, is a good example. The Iroquois confederation of five nations was a matriarchal society in which the clan mothers owned land and homes, and elected the male chiefs. So Dave ended up changing his original design to include a clan mother instructing a new chief on how to govern.”

Gary Lipton, owner of Lipton Fine Arts, collects Native American antiquities such as blankets, clothing and baskets. “I only deal in items that are pre-reservation,” Lipton said, “circa 1850-1875, when the Indians still lived in the wild and used traditional materials.”

Lipton will happily describe the difference between a dress adorned with pony beads and one made with seed beads. “Pony beads were larger and introduced from traders who traveled with pony pack trains in the early 1800s,” he said. “The Indians would kill an antelope and strip the sinew or gut, and use it to sew the beads on a hide garment. To me that’s the romance, the real character of collecting. A dress with pony beads can fetch $100,000 in resale where one with seed beads may bring only $10,000 to 18,000.”

Seed beads were introduced after manufacturing techniques in Europe improved to allow tiny beads of uniform size with a range of colors to be imported in bulk. After the tribes were relocated onto reservations, Lipton says they often bought bolts of fabric in blues, greys and reds to make blankets and garments, and sewed with cotton thread.

“Custer’s Last Stand,” by Thom Ross, installation, 200 figures: 60 troopers, 140 warriors, Kneeland Gallery

“Custer’s Last Stand,” by Thom Ross, installation, 200 figures: 60 troopers, 140 warriors, Kneeland Gallery

Theodore Villa is of Apache and Zapotec (Mexican) heritage whose work hangs in the Broschofsky Galleries. “He was raised in Santa Barbara by his maternal grandmother who instructed him in the old myths and ways,” said co-owner Minette Broschofsky. “Her stories provided inspiration for his work. His paintings depict clothing, headdresses and utilitarian objects that were part of Native American life and ceremonies, and that carried special meaning to the wearer or user.”

Villa uses vibrant watercolor washes that Broschofsky describes as like no other. “He uses multi-layers of color to achieve an intense brilliance for background,” she said. “Leather and fringe appear to have real texture. Beadwork is especially prominent. Each bead is individually painted, and then with a small drill, he pierces it down to the white of the paper, giving it a three-dimensional quality.” Broschofsky added that Villa “likes to have fun” and playfully puts his subjects in a contemporary realm by forming objects such as taxis or martinis into the beadwork of his paintings.

Two of the gallery’s younger artists turn the popular notion of Indian imagery on its head. Russell Young is a British artist who began his career in music videos but turned his attention to pop culture in photographs and prints. Broschofsky says he works in large format and often finishes his screen prints off with “diamond dust”—literally crushed glass—that gives a piece such as Curly Bear, a portrait of a Siksika chief, what she calls “an ironic pop glitz.”

Broschofsky’s son, Rudi, who grew up exposed to his parents’ Ketchum gallery, is now an urban artist in Portland. He often incorporates Native American imagery, says his mother, but his style is generations away from the pastoral scenes evoked by popular art. A product of the snow and skateboard culture, Rudi uses street art methods and employs spray paint and stencils—often on boards themselves—to convey a contemporary slant on a time of American history that people often view through a pastoral lens.

This article appears in the Summer 2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.