Art and photo contest winners share opening at Anchorage Museum

Mike Dunham

Exhibits of two of Alaska's most important juried art shows opened simultaneously at the Anchorage Museum on Oct. 5. But the First Friday crowd had its attention diverted from the art for part of the evening by members of Alaska Dance Theatre performing in the museum atrium.

Dressed in tights painted to look like bones, muscle and other parts beneath the skin with matching facial makeup, the dancers went through extensive and fascinating choreography, slowly proceeding down the atrium steps and moving among the patrons to the accompaniment of spacey, new age-ish music. It was an arresting homage to the traveling human anatomy exhibit, "Body Worlds Vital," now on view at the museum through Jan. 6.

Love of land

The biggest of the shows that debuted on First Friday is the All Alaska Juried Art Exhibition XXXIV. The 40 pieces on display were selected from 479 submissions by 140 artists from across Alaska. That's a fairly small number for the long-running biennial; 91 items made the cut in 1996, for instance.

But the show is receiving star treatment from the museum, taking up three rooms in the Alaska galleries, which is usually reserved for the popular paintings of Alaska's "Old Masters" like Sydney Laurence, Claire Fejes and Fred Machetanz. For visitors staying on the ground level after entering from the main doors it's the first thing they see.

There is notably less variety in juror Susan Cross' selections than we've seen in previous All Alaska Juried shows. I counted two portraits, two fiber works, two ceramic sculptures and two photographs. Everything else is paintings or drawings ("Back to Where I Began" by Benjamin Schleifman of Palmer, which mixes acrylic paint with an assemblage of wood and beads using a Tlingit formline design is something of a hybrid exception) and most of them are landscapes.

Cross explained her emphasis on the land in her juror's statement, saying, "Alaska boasts a distinguished landscape tradition, both past and present. ... Many of the artists selected seem to be responding to this history."

Given the wealth of previous work, she noted, it can be hard for contemporary artists to execute a landscape that does not wander into cliche. But Alaska artists seem to have figured out ways to expand the form. Cross called the paintings "an exciting and fertile dialogue about the Alaska wilderness and how it is represented."

The $1,000 Juror's Choice Award went to three large charcoal pieces by James Behlke, previously seen in his solo show at Alaska Pacific University. His moody yet realistic depictions of cloud, rain and water could, at first glance, be mistaken for and elegantly worked ink drawings.

Behlke, who has been entering All Alaska Juried Exhibitions since 1978, said the subject of "inclement weather" was appropriate for Cross' visit. "The weather was awful when Susan was in town," he said. "I'm not sure if she even saw the mountains. (At her lecture) she commented that she realized the landscape could be black and white. Perhaps that worked to my advantage."

Where Behlke's three drawings are closely related, the three pieces by Klara Maisch of Fairbanks, selected by Cross for the $500 Recognition Award, seem to be by three different artists. "Natural Resources" is a valley shown in garish orange, green and purple. "Shadows" is a black-and-white etching of a bare mountain ridge. "Alaskan Collection" is a non-landscape still life study of bones, rocks, feathers and other items one might pick up on a hike.

All three of Asia Freeman's oils, for which she received a $250 prize, are landscapes.

Other portraits of the land in the show include work by Susan Althens of Sutton, Susan Bremner of Anchorage, Dan Fruits of Juneau and David Rosenthal of Cordova.

Wildlife is less-prominently represented. There are a fox and wolverine by Todd Sherman and a porcupine by Isir Sutton, both of Fairbanks, and ravens used, somewhat anthropomorphically, by Michele Suchland; her "Dwellers" features birds perched on a row of urinals.


Celebrating the cold

As Cross seized on Alaska landscape, so Cig Harvey -- the juror of "Rarefied Light," the other big show that opened on Oct. 5 -- seems fixated by images of Alaska's cold. About half of the 61 fine art photographs he chose for the exhibition make a direct reference to it.

There's "Postman Dave" with his frosted beard in a portrait by Oscar Avellaneda-Cruz and a woman, "Annie," ice fishing in front of her village as shot by Deborah Mercy. Ryota Kajita of Fairbanks has studies titled "Snow Garden" and "Ice Formation." Clark James Mishler catches two young hockey players in "Ice." James Riordan shows a pair of abandoned vehicles buried in snow up to their windows in "Chevak, Alaska, March 28th."

One of the most eye-popping photos is by Nathanial Wilder. A shirtless man and woman in a swimsuit stand in a hot tub posed like the figures in Grant Woods' "American Gothic." (In place of the pitchfork, the man holds a snow shovel.) Their hair is frozen in upward-pointing spikes. The title says it all: "-31F."

Not to be outdone, Mary Virginia Stroud captures "Sunrise, -41 Degrees" in her hometown, Barrow.

Striking photos that don't scream "cold!" include Linda Infante Lyons' geometric view of pushki head and "Ying Yang Ravens" by Carmen Bydalek, which combines a negative (white ravens on black snow) with a positive image (black ravens on white snow).

By and large, noticeable photo manipulation (multiple images, etc.) is rare in this show. However the Best of Show winner, "Taurus" by Maggie Skiba of Eagle River, is a picture within a picture. A old Polaroid print of a smiling child with the writing, "Janice at Willow Creek July 78," is set on top of a blurry view of what seems to be the same spot.

In addition to the dated Polaroid technology, Skiba also uses plastic toy cameras and the clunky made-in-China Holga cameras from the 1980s for a feeling of studied amateurism and spontaneity. It's an approach diametrically opposed to the clear-as-a-bell goal toward which most photographers -- professionals and amateurs -- strive. The idea is to produce a piece that is unconscious of itself as art.

The quirkiest pieces in the exhibition, organized by the Alaska Photographic Center, may be several images by Loren Holmes. One of them, "The Next Generation," shows a toddler with an earnest expression holding a toy gun. Adults -- possibly the boys grandparents -- sit idly on a couch in the background.

Honorable Mentions were given to Holmes, Brian Adams, Laura and Oscar Avellaneda-Cruz (for separate submissions), Hal Gage, Matt Johnson and Janice Parsley.


Woman of steel

Elsewhere in my First Friday rambles, I was baffled by the work of Lori Wylie on display at Artique, Ltd. Wylie, originally from California, has made living landscapes in textured metal -- copper, aluminum and stainless steel. "With goggles on, wrapped in protective clothing and sparks flying, she is able to cut, grind, polish and paint metal into three dimensional works of art that are not only eye catching but also mind boggling," reads her artist bio.

As you approach the work and change your angle, or as the light and shadow of a room shift, Wylie's scenes of snow, water or mist seem to move and flow. The result is probably impossible to capture in a static photo, but captivating in person.

The Alaska Native Arts Foundation Gallery is featuring masks -- or rather, mask forms -- by Jim Miller. They tended to be larger carvings, well done and graciously displayed. The gallery is also showcasing masks by other artists, including some good work by Richard Lonsdale in traditional style and four striking contemporary masks by Jack Abraham.

Masks of a different kind can be seen at the International gallery of Contemporary Art where Eva Rodriquez is displaying several pieces influenced by African carvings.

First Friday gallery shows are typically on display for one month at a time; the museum show run dates are noted below.

As for the dancing cadavers, given the complexity of the costumes, ADT artistic director Gillmer Duran may have plans to reuse them in a future piece in an upcoming company production. The appreciative response of the audience on Oct. 5 could supply additional motivation.


Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.