There was a time in my life when I could attend an art show, write a negative review, and have people read every last word to see what I had to say. I would love to have that happen again, only this time with just positive reviews because everyone deserves to be seen in the best light possible.
THE DIRTY LITTLE SECRET OF INDIAN ART MARKETS
by Gregory J. Pleshaw, aka “gregoryp(tm)” circa March 2009
In a dramatic reversal from last year’s Heard Museum’s Indian Art Fair & Market, tradition trumped contemporary art on the roster of prize-winning pieces. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in the choice of an ornately beaded cradleboard by 5th-year Heard Show veteran Molly Murphy as the winner of Best in Show. It was a conservative piece of work for decidedly conservative times, at least fiscally speaking. But it may have been an apt choice given the relatively lackluster entries into the Fair’s judging in all categories, but especially on the contemporary side of the fence.
Many people at the Heard Show wanted to blame the judges for returning such a traditional-heavy roster of winners but the fact remained that there just weren’t a lot of heavy hitter works coming in for fans of contemporary art. Painting, for example, was mostly a total wash, with a couple of standouts that might work as merely decorative pieces, rather than actual notable works of art.
A little caveat – in the five years that I’ve been covering this beat, I would have to say that never have I seen so little work that actually inspired me. Perhaps I’ve just seen too much stuff, doodads, paintings and artifacts of all stripes that I now possess a completely jaded eye, but it seems to me like the artists involved in Market(s) aren’t really trying to push the envelope, instead opting to find a good Market niche and sticking to it because that’s what brings home the bacon. However, the tough market has made it so even those who stuck with the tried and true were punished for their efforts at this market, as sales took a nosedive even for market stalwarts, (who for obvious reasons spoke off the record and therefore cannot be named.)
As I said in my last report from the Heard show, the most unwelcome guest at the party was without a doubt the economy, which seemed to bring a lot of empty wallets and overdrawn checkbooks to the show. Artists who were previously used to selling out by Saturday at noon were still lingering at 4:30pm on Sunday, anxiously looking around for one last sale that could justify the expense of coming to the show in the first place.
Last night, while driving home from Arizona I had several epiphanies about the Heard Show and Native Markets in general (this would include Santa Fe’s Indian Market as well.) Is it possible that because these events are by their nature MARKET-driven that they encourage pandering to that Market and that a lot of mediocre work gets created and sold as a result? A number of minds are prone to think so, especially those who have decided for whatever reason that they won’t be participating in any Markets, regardless of how much fast cash might be available in them.
Some of the strongest voices in Native Art today would include Rose Simpson, Gregory Lomayesva and Tony Abeyta. All three simply choose not to do Native Markets for their own reasons, ranging from the vehement disapproval of Markets in general by Simpson to a total disinterest in “begging from a booth” by Lomayesva. But all three of them had a strong presence at the Heard Show through strong shows in the Museum (Abeyta & Simpson) and works in the Berlin Gallery (Lomayesva.)
It’s an interesting paradigm that the Markets which ostensibly exist to drive a Native art scene nonetheless see their heaviest hitters refuse to participate in their machinations, which again strive to be the primary showcases of Indian arts exposure and sales, but it speaks volumes about the power or lack thereof of these Markets to really be a driving force for serious Art-with-a-capital-A. Rose Simpson’s work is beyond serious – it is beyond a doubt in my mind that her clay sculptures in the “Mothers & Daughters” show were hands-down the most arresting pieces of work I saw the entire weekend. Tony Abeyta’s one-man show “Underworldness” feature black and white charcoal murals that seek to explore the sublime meanings behind Navajo spirituality and they again showcase the visionary talent of this fine artist.
Meanwhile, in a show of tragicomedy that may underscore the role that institutions may play in a continual rewarding of weak work and lackluster talent over really innovative vision, Gregory Lomayesva was on his way to permanently severing his ties with the Heard’s Berlin Gallery over a display of censorship that is utterly laughable for a gallery that claims to have a contemporary edge in its curatorial direction. On the heels of two successful one-man shows with Ursa Gallery in Santa Fe and Gebert Gallery in Los Angeles where Lomayesva showed both his woodworking pieces and paintings in a tour de force of narrative artistry, Lomayesva was asked to participate in a three-man show with top-flight Native painter Norman Akers, (who, incidentally, also doesn’t do Markets) and deceased Native icon Fritz Scholder. Included among the pieces that Lomayesva brought to the show was a sculpture of a woman shooting up heroin and a sculpture of a couple copulating. The Berlin refused to show the works in question, citing “inappropriateness” and “an inability to sell the works,” according to Lomayesva. After a heated exchange, Lomayesva cried censorship (and rightly so) quit the Berlin Gallery and immediately drove back to Santa Fe.
“I had thought the Berlin Gallery was supposed to be a cutting edge space,” said Lomayesva. “What their actions said to me was that they’re only interested in the Indian art of pretty pictures and noble savages. After we spoke there seemed nothing more to say, so I split.”
The Berlin gallery commented with a boilerplate statement that completely avoided the real issue at hand, (as perhaps they must.) Anyone who knows Gregory Lomayesva knows that he can be a real maverick when it comes to defending his work and he has to be – he has long existed quite well outside of the Market system, with galleries and acclaim across the nation and around the world. The synthesis of this particular anecdote is that when Native artists do step up to the plate with edgier and more interesting work, the very institutions that are supposedly there to help them shut them down with spurious claims about the value of the work – since when is “inappropriate” a reasonable word to use when rejecting a work of art? This kind of attitude on the part of these institutions shows a pandering to a Marketplace, a paternalistic attitude towards artists, and creates a situation where it makes it difficult to create an arts scene that can be taken seriously beyond the level of a crafts fair.
Over the course of the weekend, I had an opportunity to meet with Sheldon Harvey, last year’s winner of Indian Market’s Best in Show prize. Harvey is a bright, well-mannered and engaging fellow whose biopic could be called “Rez Dog Millionaire,” the heart-warming rags to riches tale of the high school dropout with no artistic education who bravely bootstrapped his way into stores and galleries with his inspired Navajo folk art sculptures and allowed him catapult his way to the top of the heap. Along the way, he picked up painting – as if painting was a skill that could be learned in a weekend without any formal training whatsoever and somehow managed to win, at the tender age of thirty, (for a painter that’s a child) what SWAIA would like to believe is the very top prize in Native American art.
Now, don’t get me wrong – Sheldon is a nice guy and I hope he still calls me to come check out his studio after this piece runs – but he can hardly be called a great painter and I would go so far as to say (as I did to him, mind you) that giving him that award did him a terrible dis-service by saying, “Evolve no further – you are already the Best,” when nothing could be further from the truth. While “The Trickster Way” (the award-winning work) is a competent painting, I think it was a grave mistake to call that piece the Best in Show of an event that touts itself as a world-class Indian art market, because here’s what it says: It says that Native Art is unschooled and not very competent, that it is perhaps filled with lovely people and inspiring tales – but NOT that it is in the business of fostering great art. If “The Trickster Way” was really the very best piece of art that Indian Market had to offer last year (and I can’t say for certain because I wasn’t around) then perhaps Indian Market should have considered not offering the prize to anyone at all.
It all comes down to a question of standards – and I’m not talking about the voluminous pile of standards that SWAIA puts out every year. Lots of people in the insider’s circles of Native art shows would like to see this work and these shows covered by publications like Art Forum and Art in America, but the dirty little secret of the Native Arts world is that most of this work simply isn’t good enough to go there. For many artists who participate in Market(s) – and certainly many of the traditional ones who learn their crafts at grandmother and grandfather’s knees – it is simply a question of not having enough of an art school background to be able to make really strong enough work to step out of the realm of craft and into “art.” For those on the contemporary side of the fence who may have spent some time at IAIA or those vaunted few who even managed to get an MFA somewhere along the line, the glittering prizes of pandering to rich white collectors with mediocre “hybrid” statements of one kind or another holds greater promise to them personally than the prospect of really digging deep to produce great art. And the Market system is partially to blame for that sad state of affairs.
A painter friend once said to me, “Paint what you want, and die happy.” But most serious Native Market contenders are making what the Market wants and aiming to die rich. Consider the new Native artist – no longer a lonesome Rez dog with a plastic bag for a suitcase but a well-heeled power broker driving an SUV and wearing a Tag Hauer watch on one wrist and a Pat Pruitt or Fritz Casuse or Maria Samora bracelet on the other. Over the weekend, one prominent Oklahoma gallery owner suggested that what was needed was a return to the idea of the starving artist who will do anything to facilitate his truest visions. The artist he introduced me to as “proof” of that kind of sacrifice said he’d be willing to starve so long as he didn’t miss a payment on his BMW. Clearly, this is not a crowd of people willing to go to the edge to make really quality work – these are folks who’ve seen the writing on the wall and will paint or sculpt or draw or fabricate where the money is in exchange for a grip of cash. The results are many many works of excellent craft quality but poorly thought out statements that do not exalt the greatest ideals of anybody’s art school – Western or Native American.
From my perspective, the Heard Show and Indian Market both have a challenge that has been thrown at their feet, and that’s to either figure out how to bring their greatest talents back into the fold and start cultivating really outstanding work within their spheres of influence – or they need to utterly admit defeat as purveyors of serious art. The latter would require them to encourage the really serious talents in Native Art not to waste their time joining their markets but instead to focus their time and energies on more schooling and on making work outside the Native Art Market system. But Market artists also have a challenge before them, and that is to challenge themselves to make stronger work that isn’t about pandering and is about pushing the envelope. The Market(s) as they are right now might not reward them, but history might – the question is, what do artists care about most?