COMBINING A traditional subject and a contemporary style into fresh amalgams has been a daunting problem for 20th-century American Indian artists. Some -- like Fritz Scholder -- have found a manner in which to do it, spawning dozens of imitators. A new artist has now emerged from this milieu with a more interesting and complex vision, and his work has just gone on view at Baumgartner Galleries, 2016 R St. NW.
R. Lee White (short for Randy Lee Whitehorse), 30, took a circuitous route from abstraction to photo-realism (via Texas Tech, the Institute of American Indian Art and the University of Oklahoma) before finding his way back to his own, highly personalized pictographic style. Born to a Brule-Sioux mother and a French father in South Dakota, the auburn-haired youth spent his childhood moving from one reservation to another, soaking up facts and feelings about Indian life and culture, including the symbolic nature of the dress, numerology and pictographs painted on tepees and clothing.
The inspiration for White's current style was obviously cumulative, but he says it was triggered when he saw some little-known "ledger" paintings -- watercolors by late 19th-century Plains Indians painted on sheets of ledger paper given them by soldiers and traders. "It wasn't easy, evolving a narrative art with no perspective and no shading," says White of his own struggle, but comparison of his own quietly powerful "ledger" drawings (on old paper) with his rather stiff, early etchings on hide, reveals how far he has come in animating his own narrative style.
Braves face, chase and shoot each other on horses with straining hooves in these story-telling works, though the tales tend to be elusive, conveying their impact more viscerally than through any recitation of specifics. In the drawing "Don't Walk Away Mad," for example, an Indian-turned-soldier has just shot a fellow warrior, and is in the process of shooting another (perhaps accidentally) as he tries to stop the fight. A specific tragedy is recounted here, but so is a sense of the larger tragedy that surrounds it.
But White's art can also be light-hearted, as it is in the series of works made from handmade paper cast in the form of buckskin shirts. Some are called "War Shirts," and are painted with pictographs recounting epic battles, while others, called "Exploit Shirts," are the precursors of today's T-shirts with words. One recounts the New Mexico artist's own latest exploit: his first "Visit to Washington." The show is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 6, through Dec. 14. Fendrick Fantasies
You can almost feel the cold winds and gentle breezes of Wisconsin blowing through the upstairs gallery at Fendrick, 3059 M St. NW, where Caroline Greenwald's new paperworks are on view. Greenwald "draws" by sandwiching naturally colored strands of raw silk, hennequin fiber and paper pulp between layers of translucent Japanese paper, the fibers placed with such delicacy as to transmit the artist's poetic perceptions of landscape and weather. Free-floating pieces such as "Madison Winter Rite," for example, conjure gentle snowstorms, while the two best framed works, "Wind Waves off the Peninsula, 1st and 2nd Moment," emit an exquisite whiff of sea air. The show continues Mondays though Saturdays, 10 to 5, through Nov. 28. At the Foundry
Foundry Gallery, 641 Indiana Ave. NW, is showing the work of two new artists: handsome abstract collages made of velvety silkscreened papers by Anne Banks, and small process sculptures by Joe Walters, who has married chunks of steel I-beams to blobs of aluminum in what is guaranteed to be a mutually corrosive relationship. If you enjoy watching metal rust, don't miss this one, open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 5, through Nov. 28.