The viewer who would visit the first National American Indian Women's Art Show at the Via Gambaro Studio-Gallery, 416 11th St., SE, first must take a voyage through a richly perfumed garden. Mint and basil bloom there, ripe nectarines and figs hang heavy in the trees. Retha Walden Gambaro -- the Creek-Cherokee sculptor whose small fountains plash there, whose cast badgers and bronze beavers snuffle in the greenery -- must rank among the kindest art dealers in town.
The grouchiest of viewers cannot fail to be softened by the mood of wholesomeness, of oneness with the natural, with which she has surrounded her flawed yet poignant show.
Her artists paint with pride, and with the brightest colors, but their show is darkened by the sadness as its core.
These artists yearn to bring to life traditions half-forgotten. Few of them succeed. There is in ancient Indian art, as in Indian dance and chanting, a jagged, rhythmic harshness that is anything but sweet. Yet too many of these pictures are conventionally pretty: The noble braves portrayed are as handsome as the models in ads for menthol cigarettes; the women are madonnas. The horses and the bunnies are frequently as cute as those in children's comic books -- they seem about to chat.
Gambara writes that the artists "are no longer content with a 'Hollywood' version of history," but their show is full of show biz: wise old chiefs and windblown hair and tom-toms.
There are, of course, exceptions. The clay figurines of Peggie Ahvakana, a Suquamish Indian from Washington State, make one smile -- and believe. Her "Oklahoma Drummer" has a bulging belly; he wears an Indian necklace and a fountain pen as well. The young woman beside him wears a T-shirt, jeans and shades. Her T-shirt bears two legends. One says "Navajo And Proud." The other one reads "Coors." One senses that this sculptor has looked at real people. There is an honesty about her work that is jarring in this show.
Helen Hardin, a Pueblo, is the star. Her work is complex, nuanced, strange; soft metallic colors and unexpected angles seem to dance together in half-traditional designs. Paradoxically her art seems both old and new. That holds true as well for the hard-edge paintings of Linda Lomahaftewa, a Hopi-Choctaw whose bright designs suggest stars and Hopi shields, birds and ears of corn. Neither Hadin nor Lomahaftewa are traditionalists, and yet within their work one feels traditions come alive.
There is a super-heated market now for cowboy-and-Indian art, and the best-known male American Indian artists -- Fritz Scholder, Kevin Red Star, Earl Bliss and Bert Seabourn -- have sold very well of late. One sees at a glance that a number of these women have looked hard at the work of those artists and explored their market. Their Via Gambaro show leaves much to be desired, but it is, at least, a start. It runs through September.
Woodfin Camp's Photographic Gallery, 925 1/2 F St., NW, is showing the black and white landscapes of Michael Zide, a Martha's Vineyard artist. tHis work is full of fogs at sea and rising mists, dry stone walls, the Northern Lights, dunes and grazing cows. Those who can't escape Washington in August can, at least, see his show. Zide is most conventional when he makes "nature abstracts" of snow patterns on ice and wind-eroded rocks. The artist prefers photographs "where the viewer has to ask, 'What is it?' "Most of those who see his show will like the others better. The nicest works on view there are those that conjure up misty meadows, sea-washed rocks, places far away. His exhibition runs through September.