The startlingly beautiful ancient art of Alaska was first revealed to Washington six years ago in the National Gallery's exhibition, "The Far North."
Now the National Collection of Fine Arts has organized the first survey of "Contemporary Art from Alaska" of which there wasn't very much six years ago. The result, considerably more modest, will be a surprise to most viewers.
While traditional stone and whalebone carvings and stenciled prints have been widely shown and consumed in recent years, including several exhibitions at Bader, contemporary art by other Alaskan artists, both natives and newcomers, has been rarely seen.
This show of paintings, prints and sculpture by 42 artists provides a surprising first glimpse at what appears to be a burgeoning art scene in Alaska. The exhibition and its highly informative catalogue are the work of NCFA education curator Peter Bermingham.
Though geographically America's last frontier, Alaska's current art has little to do with new frontiers, with a few exceptions such as the funny conceptualist from Ohio, William P. Sabo. Whether representational, semi-abstract or hard edge, the paintings and prints are generally typical of the solid, high quality work which might be seen in any regional American art center slightly out of the urban mainstream.
What characterizes all of this work, however, is its preoccupation with the Alaskan landscape and references to her past. "Almost everything that we do in Alaska is affected by the fact of our being here," explains artist-poet Pat Austin in her elucidating catalogue essay. "The stunning closeness of the land excites people to do something about it."
But Austin adds: "The turning of one's back on the Alaskan motif is not an uncommon way to deal with the immeasurable immensity of it all," and it is the kooky California-cum-Chicago brand of surrealism with a new Alaskan twist that here produces the most interesting paintings.
But in Alaska, as elsewhere in America at the moment, the three-dimensional work provides the real excitement, particularly the sculptures and assemblages by native-born artists who, by instinct or desire, fuse old traditions with new forms.
Alvin Eli Amason's "pop" inspired wood construction called "Seagulls Aren't Scared of Bears," for example, takes an endearing look at the unexpected relationship between a giant Kodiak bear and his friend the seagull. A more serious environmental note is struck, however, when the viewer spots the "tagged" ears of the bear.He or she is obviously being closely watched, presumably by scientists concerned with impending rarity. Amason is an Aleut, born in Kodiak. He has been shown and honored outside Alaska.
More authentically "sculptural" are the sensuous marble carvings of John S. Penatac and Melvin Olanna, both Eskimo artists who have wrested modernity from traditional forms.
Last and best, however, is the powerful work of Aleut stone carver Fred J. Anderson, who, in an assemblage called "Native Craft," combines traditional Tlingit carvings with sleek modern wooden forms. All are ultimately anchored to the base (and symbolically to nature) by the use of a real bird's foot.
Though it is probably the least "attractive" piece to look at, it is surely the most poignant metaphor for the problem of fusing past with present the most confounding problem of current Alaskan art.
The exhibition continues through September 17, and the catalogue is a highly-readable account of the state of the visual arts in Alaska.
It has often been said that celebrities read new non-fiction starting at the back - checking the index to see if their names are included. There was a lot of that last week as the July-August issue of "Art in America" magazine, a national art journal, came sailing through the mail slots of area subscribers. The special issue is devoted to art in Washington, and the question is, "Is it really non-fiction?"
Though anxiously awaited, the issue has turned out to be a disappointment to all of the artists and dealers contacted for comment, except one who said, "Honestly, I'm afraid to say what I think. They might decide never to review another show of mine."
Printmaker Lou Stovall, however, was outspoken. "They said this issue would do a lot for Washington artists and sold advertising hard, and I mean hard. Then the issue turned out to be mostly about the public institutions here, which don't need publicity. I took an ad for Workshop, Inc., but I'll never advertise in that magazine again.
Painter Sam Gillian was a bit more philosophical, but still negative. "It happens every 10 years that someone compares New York and Washington, [which is really what the whole issue is about] and the comparison never includes success. How bad is a town where artists who live in New York have to come to work and sell their art?"
Not one printmaker was included. Nor one review of a show in a Washington gallery. Nor were there any photographs showing current art, unless the artists profiled happened to be standing in front of their work. An article by Gene Davis did feature several Washington color painters, and there was one photographed by John Gossage, but that was used chiefly to back up a caption about "the cultural facade of the ever-spinning structure of political realities known as the Washington-go-around." Good grief.