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Sports violence, Native identity and Alaska's best artists encompassed in 3 powerful exhibits at Anchorage Museum

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published February 11, 2016

Three powerful exhibits opened at the Anchorage Museum on Feb. 5, all located on the third floor in a grouping that lets the viewer conveniently stroll from one to the next and see everything without doubling back.

The largest in terms of space and the number of artists involved is the All-Alaska Biennial Juried Art Show, the new name for the combined All-Alaska Juried Art Exhibit and Earth, Fire and Fibre.

Even before you walk into the first of three galleries dedicated to the show, you hear the soundtrack that accompanies a video by Michael Conti. As a child recites the words to "The Impossible Dream," a man dressed somewhat like Don Quixote marches across ice on the shore of Cook Inlet. The audio is a necessary component of the piece, however it's loud enough that it follows you throughout the rest of the exhibit.

On the other side of the gallery is the Juror's Choice prize winner, a black walnut sculpture with feathers titled "Alakam Cikiutiik (Carrie's Gifts)" by John Kailukiak. Curator Angela Demma said the piece is owned by Dr. Bill Paton of Anchorage and his wife and commemorates the birth of their twin children. If you look closely at the bottom of the belly of the figure, you see two happy faces.

On the figure's left side are three geometric abstract pieces in pine by Don Decker. They are shaped something like a fan and include simple sticks dangling between the folds. The design is elementally alluring and the colors are lovely. The remaining wall has four photos by Matt Johnson. Johnson is one of three artists with four works selected for the show, the other two being Decker and photographer Lily Weed.

The next gallery has various submissions of glass, ceramics, fabric and photography. But the dominant item is an enormous oil painting of a whale-butchering party by David Pettibone. "The Whale as a Dish, Spring Hunt" is 15 feet long. It may be the biggest oil painting ever hung at the museum. Demma doubted it would fit in Fairbanks' Bear Gallery, where the show will travel after Anchorage.

One of the most beautiful pieces in the show is "Summer School," a depiction of migrating salmon done in thread. The fragile, gossamer feel of this piece is so airy that one has to marvel at how artist Beth Blankenship pulled it off, much less how she was able to deliver it to the show. It received one of five merit awards in the exhibit.

The third gallery contains more mixed media work, dominated by another merit award winner, Amy Meissner's gorgeous "Reliquary #8: Scroll." This long ribbon of vintage linen and silk glides up and over two tube supports that hold part of it high above the viewer. The bottom ends connect to aged metal handles.

Another fine piece by Decker, his fourth item in the show, is here. "Great Thaw" has the form of a diptych with two similar designs in the shape of targets but constructed of more intriguing materials. Here too are Weed's photos of Arctic locations, which won a merit award as a group.

One also sees some humorous two-dimensional work in the third gallery. "Nenana" by Jessica Swider is a collection of nude female forms surmounted by wolf heads. "Young Handsome Guy Seeks Fishing Buddy" by Thomas Chung shows the title character (a self-portrait?) getting out of a bed with water flowing up to the mattress, a fish on one side of him, a bear on the other. "Chili Cook-Off (Yellow Headed Vulture and Thiebaud)," a very bright oil by Paula Payne, shows the buzzard looking over bowls of red. The title refers to Wayne Thiebaud, a pop artist well-known for his depictions of food.

Dissecting history

In the Juror's Statement, exhibit judge Jen Budney of Saskatoon, Canada, contrasts her selections with more familiar depictions of Alaska landscapes, animals and people. She calls that perspective "colonial" and says it "appeals to many tourists, but cannot move dialogue or discourse forward on any level, aesthetic or otherwise."

She wrestled "with the problem of cultural appropriation," she says. "Alaska, like Saskatchewan, is not 'post-colonial' in theory only -- in practice, relations between non-Indigenous and Indigenous citizens are shaped by the ongoing dominance of settler, colonial, political and social structures." This leads to art that signifies "indigeneity through the representation of Indigenous cultural objects" at the expense of Native people themselves, she asserts.

The show in the immediately adjoining gallery addresses some of the same concerns in a forceful way. Nicholas Galanin says his multifaceted show "Kill the Indian, Save the Man" is intended to "dissect, reconnect and map the real history of settler violence as experienced by First Nations Peoples."

Approaching the Galanin show from the All-Alaska display, the first thing you see is a Tlingit mask painted with sparkles, vaguely suggestive of Mardi Gras costumes. Around the corner is an installation in which a live man in white shirt and tie is sometimes found using an adz to create traditional Northwest art.

A horizontally divided video projected on one wall shows panoramic landscapes, the bottom screen viewed right-side up, the top half shown upside down. High on one wall is a white ceramic recreation of body armor such as might be used by riot police, arranged as if crucified.

The second gallery in the show features a collaboration with Nep Sidhu. Four female mannequins are clothed in splendid gowns, their faces obscured by a veil, a blanket or armor. Sidhu said the exhibit within an exhibit, titled "No Pigs in Paradise," was intended to reaffirm First Nations women "as the integral component to the reestablishment of balance and harmony … leveraging ornament, textile, ceremony, incantation so they can be prepared to lead their families, communities and societies to an exalted, harmonious and prosperous status quo."

A more grim collaboration stands at the other end of the room, behind a mounted polar bear with its back half displayed as a rug. (One of Galanin's most famous images is of a wolf in a similar pose.) "A Supple Plunder" is the work of Galanin and his brother, Jerrod, created under the single pseudonym "Leonard Getinthecar." It's a line of nine torsos made of ballistic gel, a construction used by law enforcement to test guns. It refers to an old story – most likely true -- about how Russians tied up several Native men and shot them to see how far their musket ball would go.

The Galanins reconstructed the test using the modern torsos. You can see the slowly diminishing destruction as the bullet passed from one body to the next, eventually lodging in the shoulder of the ninth. Behind them is a super-slow motion video showing the journey of the bullet.

Almost as an afterthought, one sees the work that gives the whole show its name. We see traditional masks and collections of wood chips titled "Kill the Indian, Save the Man."

Then we see the chips reassembled into a mask-like shape titled "The Saved Man."

Gladiator culture

Violence of a different sort follows in the third two-gallery solo show, "Stick and Puck," by the same Michael Conti, whose Don Quixote video is at the start of the All-Alaska Biennial exhibit -- at total coincidence, Demma said.

Conti's subject is hockey, "the only sport where the game is stopped to let the players duke it out with bare knuckles." It opens with replicas of helmets, mitts, pucks and sticks in various media. Elsewhere the artist displays hockey gear made from a range of materials, from beer cans to porcupine hide.

The walls are lined with collages on flattened banker box tops. Images are imposed on an overhead view of a hockey rink. The pictures have sad titles: "Blood Sport," "Bad Brain," "The Life & Death of Derek Boogaard."

Boogaard, a celebrated professional player, died in 2011 at age 28 after he laid down to take a nap. An autopsy found he had levels of alcohol and oxycodone so high that "he probably died as soon as he closed his eyes." Boston University Medical School examined his brain and determined it had suffered a great deal of tissue damage from the battering he took on the ice.

It leads to the last gallery on this walk, which is actually the first in Conti's exhibit. There's a video projected on the show that follows a skater's progress around a local lake from the perspective of a GoPro camera strapped to the skater. Around the walls are high-quality photographic portraits of 19 Alaska hockey players in their gear. All 19 are women.

"This gladiator culture takes its toll," Conti says in his artist statement. But he also notes, "The most interesting thing to me about sports are the stories; on the ice and off the ice. … As the demographic changes, the narrative shifts."

THE ALL-ALASKA BIENNIAL JURIED ART SHOW, KILL THE INDIAN, SAVE THE MAN, and STICK AND PUCK will be on display through April 10 at the Anchorage Museum.