Goose breastbone, fungus, moose antler and dried and waxed groundhog hide -- not the ordinary materials of art. They are the materials of shamans and sorcerers, and should be clue enough that you are in the presence of art objects charged with the spirit of totemistic magic, tribal and religious myths and rituals.
"Other Gods -- Containers of Belief" is an ambitious museum-scale exhibition shared by three Dupont Circle galleries: the Fondo del Sol Art Center (which originated the exhibition), Wallace Wentworth and Art Caprice, a new gallery on 21st Street.
Curated by Rebecca Kelley Crumlish of Fondo del Sol, it features 90 works -- mostly installations and sculptures -- by 30 artists whose ethnic origins and cultural influences are as pluralistic as their native and adopted country, the United States. Some of the artists were originally from Brazil, Canada, China, Ethiopia, Israel, Japan and the Philippines; others are native Americans, including an Indian from Mexico who now lives in the province of Quebec, Canada, where he traps animals for a living. There are Afro-Americans from Baltimore and Los Angeles, Italian Americans from Providence, R.I., and New York, and just plain Wasps from places like Minnesota and California.
As might be expected, the "containers of belief" are equally diverse. There are fetish skulls and skulls that serve as musical instruments. There are "guardians" made of hide, bone and slate; medieval figures wandering the land between the living and the dead; "spirit" boats of wicker and wood; feather capes of Aztec gods; and intricately carved wooden stools of African kings, as imagined by the artist in a dream. There are also mermaid baby fetishes inspired by Ghanaian legends, and bone carvings and sculptures that reflect animism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism and Christianity. And not to be ignored are the ceremonies and rituals that were re-enacted in video and real-life performances, most of which took place during opening night and the first weekend.
It is a marvelously motley survey that for the most part avoids the superficialities of pop primitivism. These are serious American artists with serious ideas, despite the fact that many have been ignored by the whims of art fashion. For the most part, they are not naive artists -- in fact, a number of them have art degrees and a considerable number of exhibition credits.
The least effective works are those that attempt a fusion of contemporary esthetics and the art of tribal and religious myths. But one or two such hybrids were exceptional, as in the case of Alfred DeCredico's intelligently conceived sculptures at Wallace Wentworth, which featured fetishistic skulls poised above elegantly reductive shapes of rusty steel.
Art and ritual in primitive religions are ways of distinguishing the sacred from the profane, and that, too, seems to be an aim of many of these artists -- to separate their spiritual concerns from the profaneness of the secular art world, using as mentors and guides the shaman-artists of the past.
Some of the simplest works in the three-part show are charged with the authority of the sacred: for example, Carlos Villa's "Arm of Power, 1985" at Fondo del Sol and the beautiful trio of willow canoes by Carol Shaw-Sutton floating in their invisible netherworld at Wallace Wentworth. There is also the austere and moving ancestral shrine of Kiyoshi Ike (a Korean raised in Japan) at Caprice and the exquisite miniature elk bone carving of the Iroquois turtle legend of creation by Stanley Hill at Fondo del Sol.
More tableaux: the foreboding moose ribcage and skin of Domingo Cisneros' "El Vigilante, 1981" or the powerful fetishes of Joyce Scott's torso dolls bound by wool, shells, human hair and skin -- the "Mamie Wadas" of Ghanaian legend -- both at Fondo del Sol. And charged with a special pathos are the enchanting and wistful sculptures by David Best at Art Caprice: Dressed in medieval garb, crawling with animal talismans -- dogs, birds, lizards -- these children riding on a cosmological donkey in "Wander, 1986" are spirit beings forever trapped in a journey from here to there.
This is the second appearance for "Other Gods." The first was a larger exhibition at Syracuse's Everson Museum earlier this year, and it's a pity this museum-scale exhibition couldn't find a similar home in Washington during its two month run as that might have made for more thematic coherence than the present three-part installation.
Continuing its somewhat patchwork history, "Other Gods" will have a color catalogue coming out in June, and another installation at Fondo del Sol in September before the entire exhibition regroups in 1987 to travel to several American cities.
"Other Gods -- Containers of Belief" will be on display until July 22 at Fondo del Sol art and media center, 2112 R St. NW; Wallace Wentworth, 2006 R St. NW; and Art Caprice Inc., 1727 21st St. NW. Fondal del Sol and Art Caprice are open 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; Wallace Wentworth is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.