Exhibits address what's real about art and the North

Anchorage Daily NewsJune 23, 2012 

"The Cloud" will draw you into the third-floor galleries of the Anchorage Museum even if a big show of modern art isn't quite what you'd planned to see. The lumpy, floating installation is the first thing one sees in "True North: Contemporary Art of the Circumpolar North," on display through Sept. 9.

In the surrounding space are paintings, collages, photos, three-dimensional and video pieces by 40 artists from around the North, including several Alaskans. It's something of a departure from the museum's usual big summer shows, which have recently focused on natural history ("Gold" and "Mammoths and Mastodons").

Funded in part by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, it has some of the edginess of exhibits from Allen's personal collection: aggressively up-to-date (I don't think I saw anything from before the third millennium), filled with new media, often fantastical, usually thought-provoking and, just as often, disorienting.

"True North" curator Julie Decker writes, "These (contemporary) artists are attempting to define place -- not the romantic North of earlier generations but the next North, one that is connected, pivotal and conflicted."

In the catalogue for the show, Decker asserts that the frontier of northern regions has long been romanticized as "a sparsely populated place where nature is more visible ... an angular place, unchanging and marginally inhabitable, which appeals to few senses."

She notes that "this frontier has now faded -- replaced by global, digital and virtual connections ... Today's world is a global world, not a world of frontiers."

The press release describes the artists as seeking to "portray a North that's complex, in transition."

The use of "true" in the title suggests a dichotomy between what this show represents and a second show at the museum one floor down, "Romantic North," a display of the museum's Alaska landscape paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"Contrary to what's often hanging in art galleries, life in the North isn't always a picture-perfect landscape," says the press release for "True North." "In the new exhibition, artists from the circumpolar North de-romanticize Northern life, stripping off the varnish to reveal honest depictions of life here -- dirty snow and all."

There may be no better example of that than Ken Lisbourne's "Alcohol." Originally from Point Hope, Lisbourne creates bright paintings that usually show happy scenes of villagers hunting or celebrating. "Alcohol" features two despondent and weeping women watching men guzzle from bottles while a fur trader displays a pelt and grins at the viewer.

Lisbourne has said it was a painting that tourists didn't want to buy.

In a similarly startling drawing, Annie Pootoogook, from Nunavut, depicts a Native couple snuggling in bed while watching erotica on a television.

Several of the photos in the exhibit show buildings in a state of deterioration, including the Jesse Lee Home in Seward, a White Alice site near Nome and a boarded up public housing project in Siberia. They point to one of the major themes in the show, the damage done to nature by humans. Multi-media installations from Little Diomede and Shaktoolik express concern with the implications of global warming, while a lovely riposte is a mesmerizing seven-minute loop of video of snow falling in Rome, the luxurious flakes floating past palm trees and a Mediterranean villa.

Many of the items are intriguing simply for their technique. Chris Jordan's large image of Mount McKinley is composed of 24,000 repetitions of the logo from GMC's Yukon Denali in various shades, some reading "Denali," others reading "Denial." Tania Kitchell's installation "Occupy" is a field of introduced and invasive plants found in the Arctic, replicated in ABS plastic by means of a computer program.

Another large component in the show is unposed, untweaked photographs framing visions that seem surreal, like Brian Adams' sunny shot of a lonesome basketball hoop in the snow at Shishmaref. Or Ryan Romer's picture of a barber chair under a fish rack. Or Olaf Otto Becker's panorama of the Greenland ice cap dotted with Swiss researchers in light jackets and short sleeves taking snapshots like a flock of tourists.

Among the more curious posed photos are "The Matanuska Project," a series by Amy Johnson. They follow a white-faced model in a gaudy dress onto the glacier. The dress is displayed next to the photos, a lively juxtaposition of image and real item.

Honest observers

"Instead of merely creating awe-inspiring views, contemporary work questions the very concept of the landscape," Decker writes. Artists experiment in an attempt to represent the sensory experience of an environment or analyze the cultural ramifications of the land. Their "value judgements are ethical, rather than aesthetic."

So far, so good. Lisa Gray's caricatures of women of the North, real and imagined, emphasize the human state with almost no reference to either the built or natural landscapes. The photograph of a sign made by Kevin Schmidt and set adrift on the Arctic ice is peppered with prophetic warnings drawn straight from the biblical Book of Revelation. Several pieces of "True North" act as billboards for the artist's point of view about society or politics.

This art is not passive or detached in the sense of the old landscapes, Decker says. "It suggests activism, not observation; science, not romanticism."

Yet science is nothing if not observant, and the "Romantic North" exhibit shows that the landscape artists of the past were keen observers, even if they recorded their observations in painterly styles familiar to their contemporaries. Sydney Laurence's 1912 painting of Seldovia or his 1917 depiction of a sunset over Cook Inlet are sufficiently detailed that one could likely find the spot at which he made his initial sketches. Likewise Frederick Dellenbaugh's painting of the mountains on the south side of Kachemak Bay done in 1899.

Rusty Heurlin's colors -- the alpenglow on Mount Hayes, the yellow leaves of Interior birch in autumn -- are honest captures of the same colors that continue to so excite Alaskans who see them, colors that stimulate an emotional reaction that one is unable to communicate to those who have not experienced them.

The true North can be, in truth, a very stunning place, a place where the scope and beauty of the land can humble and delight the heart in ways that a constructed environment can never quite duplicate.

Perhaps the older generation understood this better than is possible now, when rapid communication, travel and transportation makes it possible to buy a banana in Barrow in January. Whether Alaska's "old masters" drank in the country as an "uplifting, moral, spiritual" experience -- as the catalogue states -- or perceived it as the "direct sensory experience" attributed to the "True North" artists is a matter of hypotheses. And associating their "calm" or "passive" paintings of that beauty with the romantic movement, originally criticized for its heated emotion, may not be quiet accurate.

What seems likely is that Laurence, Eustace Ziegler, Theodore Lambert and many of the other "romantic" landscape painters knew the north in a visceral way that most modern artists do not, perhaps cannot. They were, of necessity, closer to the elements than we are now. Human intrusions were novel necessities, but not out of place. When Laurence put a canvas wall tent with stovepipe into one of his landscapes, or Lambert made a cozy cabin the focus of a painting, they were not romanticizing; they were faithfully showing their world as they knew it.

Types of truth

Perhaps the most romantic of all Alaska landscape artists has a show of his own on the fourth floor. Bradford Washburn was a photographer rather than a painter, but his crystal-clear black-and-whites of Denali and other scenic spots falls in line with the aesthetic of the "Romantic North" canvases. The grandeur of the land is his only subject; people are incidental. In a rare shot that includes humans, he refers to them as "Lilliputians."

It's worth noting that, while Washburn is remembered today as a great photographer, explorer and mountaineer, in his life his main fame was as a master cartographer. Maps are among the most scientific of art forms. Each line and notation means one specific thing, like a chemical formula. If you follow a well-made map you will encounter the same detail until there has been a geographic shift, perhaps millions of years in the future.

What we draw from these three exhibits is that there are two kinds of artistic truth (at least). One is the correlation, as accurate as possible, between the real object or event and the record of it. The other is the intellectual link between reality and what one thinks of it -- what some call "a type of truth."

A good example in "True North" is Sarah Anne Johnson's manipulated photos. Her picture of a towering black box on the tundra is being used to promote the show. Other images are eye-catching blends of real models with dolls of those individuals that Johnson has made. They have a bewildering aura of fantasy.

Another example can be found in the museum atrium, part of the summer show about Mount McKinley, "The High One." That exhibit is mostly about science and history, but it includes a video of the Athabascan story about the origins of Denali, recited by Patrica Wade of Chickaloon and illustrated by her son Dimi Macheras. The definition of a legend is that it is a past event that can neither be proved nor disproved. It is recounted for the broad lessons it conveys. It too is a "type of truth."

All art is some form of construct. People are not dolls and Mount McKinley does not exist in two dimensions, either in a Lambert painting or a Washburn map. A drawing of a pipe is not a pipe. Works of art are always analogs for something outside themselves -- a place, a community, an event, the artist's thoughts -- even when they purport to be about nothing except themselves.

Which brings us to whether a piece of art works aesthetically or not. (In the case of "Cloud," it didn't even work mechanically. The pumps attached to water bottles, intended to raise or lower the helium-filled sack, were either blocked or broken during my three visits.)

Few pieces in "True North" would be called ingratiating. Sonya Kelliher-Combs' assemblage of 76 black and white polymer strips suspended over canning jars by pins and lined up around a corner from the rest of the exhibit is an exception. So are the elegant but straight-forward photos of landscapes or caribou in migration by New Yorker Subhankar Banejerie.

But the overall ambiance of the show is power, not grace. The major themes (global warming, etc.) are shouted, not sung.

Some viewers -- maybe all -- will find something bewildering in "True North." Still, take time to seek out the details.

You may view the Washburn photos and "Romantic North" with a sense of awe. But you will leave "True North" with your mind abuzz.

"TRUE NORTH" will be on display through Sept. 9 at the Anchorage Museum, 625 C St. "

THE ROMANTIC NORTH" will be on display at the museum through April 30, 2013. Other examples of "classic" Alaska landscape paintings can be found in the main museum collections on permanent display.

"BRADFORD WASHBURN: GLORIES OF THE GREATLAND" will be on display at the museum through Sept. 2.

"THE HIGH ONE: REACHING THE TOP" will be on display at the museum through Oct. 21.

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