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Zooming In on Indian Photography

By Glenn Dixon
Thursday, September 16, 2004; Page C05

• Three Native American photographers at Kathleen Ewing sound notes of celebration and satire, and in each case the latter rings truer. Though hints of bitterness run through Zig Jackson's shots of Native American war vets, they don't sting like his "Entering Zig's Indian Reservation" series, in which the artist wryly stakes his claim to sites such as San Francisco's City Hall. Dressed in sneakers, jeans, plaid shirt, sunglasses and feathered headdress, he poses beside a faux-official sign outlawing such activities as hunting, picture-taking and being a New Ager. Victor Masayesva Jr.'s cornball "Nude/Seeds" superimposes a female torso with kernels of maize, while his wild-eyed, money-munching kachina montage acidly personifies the cultural force that is the Indian casino. And Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie's written reminiscence of a childhood visit pales beside a digitally manipulated meeting of astronaut and child that resurrects the spirit of Gil Scott-Heron's Apollo-era performance poem "Whitey on the Moon."

"Contemporary Native American Art: Zig Jackson, Victor Masayesva Jr., Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie" at Kathleen Ewing Gallery, 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW, Wednesday-Saturday noon-5 p.m., 202-328-0955, to Oct. 9.

"China Basin District," part of Jackson's "Entering Zig's Indian Reservation" series. (Copyright Zig Jackson)

Pollock to Kessler: A Blotted Line

• If in the '40s and '50s abstraction looked inward -- "I am nature," said Pollock, who disdained painting from nature -- painters in the '90s turned midcentury styles outward. Since 1998, German artist Susanne Kessler has applied the thick, blot-strewn line of Pollock's more calligraphic, small-scale paintings to the nearly 150 tar drawings that compose her "evolution room." Backed by fabric and netting cutouts and sometimes turned to the wall, the pictographs limn the lower orders of fauna without being too plain about it. Clarity does get the better of Kessler's "mussels" drawings, and we quickly tire of the shell game. But her "collages" -- a term that seems rather too dainty for large, rough-hewed wall pieces that draw on Rauschenberg and Motherwell -- are cloudy and complex enough to evoke the vital stew of filth and decay that nurtures life.

An untitled painting by Susanne Kessler. (American Association For The Advancement Of Science)
"Susanne Kessler: Patterns of Life" at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1200 New York Ave. NW, Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-326-6672, to Oct. 29. (A wire installation by the artist opens 6-8 p.m. tonight at the Goethe-Institut, 812 Seventh St. NW, 202-289-1200.)

Out of the Andes, Timeless Artistry

• If Bolivia doesn't look all that big on the map, that's just because it's next to Brazil. The Inter-American Development Bank's overview of Bolivian folk art actually has a lot of turf to cover in a compact gallery space, and it does it fairly well. The timeline stretches from an inlaid 18th-century box for coca leaves to a spanking new fruit bowl in the form of a reed boat. The geographic boundaries prove delightfully permeable. Chinese movies may have given rise to the three-headed dragons that adorn contemporary devil masks. And an extravagantly embroidered dance costume circa 1920 looks to my eyes like a predecessor of the flamboyant outfits designed by celebrity tailor Nudie Cohn for Nashville royalty.

A dance headdress from La Paz dates to 1950. (Eric Bauer -- Quipus Cultural Foundation)
"Indigenous Presence in Bolivian Folk Art: A Celebration of Everyday Life" at the Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center Art Gallery, 1300 New York Ave. NW, Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-623-3774, to Nov. 19.

Reconnecting With Old Acquaintances

• For her second-to-last show, Elizabeth Roberts returns to the pairing with which she opened her doors. Jonathan Bucci's stuffed, pillowlike paintings -- made from rubbery sheets of color concocted from a custom blend of latex and silicone caulk -- are in transition, having migrated to the floor and morphed into sprawling landscapes. The weakest is a crumpled orange tract of "Untitled Land." The strongest, "Biscayne Bay," is a Hefty bag homage to Christo's "Surrounded Islands."

Jonathan Bucci's "Untitled Land": Crumpled ambition. (Elizabeth Roberts Gallery)
Elise Richman's newest "dot paintings," small canvases bristling with striped stalagmites of paint, have taken a sci-fi turn for the better. The more tightly clustered passages of "Fortress" and "Colony" suggest alluringly repellent outcroppings of alien mold. Reminiscent of the supersaturated junk-food photography of Martin Parr, Richman's digital prints of her paintings make the oils glossier and the colors more tantalizingly garish.

"Jonathan Bucci & Elise Richman: New Works" at Elizabeth Roberts Gallery, 2108 R St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-232-1011, to Sept. 25.

Betsy, Aping the Abstractionists

One of Betsy the Chimp's finger paintings. (American Dime Museum)
• You say your kid could do that? For once, you're right. There's little difference, developmentally speaking, between a 2-year-old rugrat and a full-grown chimpanzee. It's impossible to make any great claim for the finger paintings of Baltimore Zoo star Betsy the Chimp (1951-60) as art, but as a record of an uncomprehending public's anxiety over abstract expressionism, they're fascinating. It's pretty funny that folks felt so threatened by the likes of Pollock and de Kooning that a simian reaction erupted -- but it's pretty sad, too. A consolation: As American Dime Museum Director Dick Horne observes, Betsy's handler, who gave her colors and removed the paper before it became muddy, was essentially using the chimp as a brush. And that's rather avant-garde.

"Baltimore's Betsy, the Finger-Painting Chimp: A Retrospective of Her Work" at the American Dime Museum, 1808 Maryland Ave., Baltimore, Wednesday-Friday noon-3 p.m., Saturday-Sunday noon-5 p.m., 410-230-0263, ongoing.

Another Perspective on Native Works

Carved from a fine-grained igneous rock, this Aztec rattlesnake is on display at Dumbarton Oaks. (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library & Collections)
• Crowds are sure to pack the Mall for next week's grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian. Anyone who wants to see historic Native American art in relative quiet should keep in mind the pre-Columbian holdings at Dumbarton Oaks. Although three of the eight Philip Johnson-designed pavilions remain closed for construction work, the others are open, and it's possible to have them all to yourself, even on a weekend. Some of the stars of a formidable collection are on view, including a fearsome Olmec jadeite mask, an iridescent Huari mosaic mirror and -- a personal favorite -- an imposing Aztec rattlesnake whose tight, dense coils, serrated on the underside, were carved from purplish-brown rhyolite porphyry.

"The Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art" at Dumbarton Oaks, 1703 32nd St. NW, Tuesday-Sunday 2-5 p.m., 202-339-6401, permanent.

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