Every year the Kenai Visitors & Cultural Center hosts a themed art show. Previous themes have included sea life, Native art and light at high latitudes.
This year being the 50th anniversary of Alaska's admission into the union, the theme is, logically enough: "Reflections on Alaska Statehood: the 49th at 50."
For the thousands of Alaskans who will drive to the Kenai Peninsula for salmon fishing this month, this art show offers an attractive way to pass some time between casts. For the thousands of others who aren't necessarily crazy about fishing, but go along out of affection for those who are, it's an even better deal.
A number of Alaska's best-known artists have contributed work to the invitational show, which has gained wide respect since its inaugural exhibit in 2004. Kesler Woodward, Jane Terzis, Wanda Seamster, Garry Kaulitz, David Rosenthal, Carol Crump Bryner, Gail Niebrugge and Hal Gage are just a few of the many names included this year.
In fact, with the Anchorage Museum closed until Memorial Day weekend, the Kenai venue at this moment may be housing the best public display of established Alaska artists anywhere in the Southcentral part of the state.
In his statement about the show, guest curator Barry McWayne noted the range of subjects that the artists used to address Alaska's 50 years as a state, "communities, lifestyles, landscapes, weather, politics... Clearly they have addressed this opportunity with vigor!"
Vigor and variety.
Some pieces make an overt reference to Alaska's relationship to the rest of the nation. Kaulitz's monotype/monoprint "Stimulus" shows an image of William Seward and the check by which Uncle Sam purchased Russian claims to the territory. Seamster's "Howdy Podner" springs from an editorial cartoon, showing a large Alaska shaking hands with a diminutive Texas, a reminder that before 1959, the Lone Star state took special pride in being the largest "of all the 48."
Other images and constructions require some cogitation to find a link. Don Mohr's evocative ink-jet "Motel," depicting a boarded up Alaska inn and gift shop adorned with flags, hints at the fears of dispensability that have worried Alaskans for decades. "My State," an installation by Zirrus Van Devere, seems to speak to Alaskans' predilection for treating the past as invisible; Van Devere uses an overhead projector to illuminate a canvas of chaotic forms so that, when seen from the back, a pioneer is seen standing at the door of an old home.
You need to note the title of Ahna Iredale's elegant ceramic stacked jar, "Identifying the Gold," to formulate a connection between the art and the theme. And it can help to read the artist's statement. Sherri Sather explains her mixed media painting of a glowing oval under a mountain, "The Golden Egg," thus:
"My work represents the lure of Alaska -- Fish, Gold, Oil, Adventure... the inspiration we had for coming to this state has lead us on, drawn us in. Willing to put up with any number of hardships or consequences, we often find the 'golden egg' has nothing to do with financial security, but is embedded in our own experience."
One finds attention paid to the pre-statehood and pre-contact past in a painted yellow cedar carving by Sandy Stolle depicting an elder in a kuspuk, identified as "History's Spirit, Tomorrow's Guardian." The sharp classic lines of an Alutiiq-style mask by Sven Haakanson are echoed in Paul Dungan's more amorphous clay masks.
Still other pieces seem to sidestep the theme altogether. Charles Mason's photograph "My Yard, Fairbanks" is ostensibly nothing more than a snapshot of the snow-filled view from his window, though a haunting one. Landscapes by Woodward, Rosenthal and Steve Gordon likewise seem content to let the land speak for itself. Similarly Ree Nancarrow's Denali-area-inspired fiber piece "Mountains with Willows," while colorful, feels emotionally neutral. Todd Sherman's free-standing bust of a bear eyes us curiously, but -- like all bears -- says nothing about the issues involving statehood.
"Some artists don't respond to themes," Natasha Ala, the executive director of the center, said philosophically.
Thus we encounter things that border on baffling, like a found object box by Margo Klass, using pillars of birch stems as if they were altar pillars. Or Jannah Secton Atkins' mixed media "Vacuous," which uses a fish print and fish fossils. Or the photo of a sink on a roof from Bonnie Landis' intense series of studies of the Buckner Building, Whittier's derelict monument to the Cold War.
There are also abstracts, including Kat Tompka's big, enigmatic tape-and-graphite hanging titled "Re-Up" and paintings by James Evenson and his son, Thor.
No exhibit of Alaska's past or present would be complete without political commentary, and "Reflections" has its share. Frederick Anderson's untitled ink sketch of the state map superimposed between two skulls includes a litany of complaints from "Lack of adequate subsistence support" to "Killing of Wolves" to "ANSCA debacle and backlash" to "Stevens lies."
Michael Walsh seems to have a more sympathetic take on Ted Stevens in "Forget-me-not," an Alaska flag with the former senator's image on it, battered and marred with tire marks and boot prints.
And speaking of flags, there's Jim Dault's flag-shaped slab of aluminum, painted blue, in which the Big Dipper has been gouged as if shot out by a rifle firing some caliber of ammunition that probably isn't legal for civilian use.
The "Reflections" show pairs with a second exhibit, still in progress, of portraits of Kenai area old timers, some straight forward, others calling for a closer look, like Jessica Gonzalez's "Portrait of Jean Brockel," showing just the subject's hands holding a bentwood box.
Fittingly an image of James Evenson by Todd Marshall Closson is included.
Evenson is one of the grand old men of Alaska art on the Peninsula, a homesteader who's taught art for years and tackled a wide range of media and topics in the decades since statehood.
There's an extra benefit to stopping by the show this month, Ala said. The animals, artifacts and curiosities that comprise the center's museum collection have been removed as the space received renovation and maintenance work. When they are put back in place in June, $5 admission will be charged.
In the meantime, it's free.
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.