Tradition weighs heavy on the minds of Native American artists, but no more so than on the minds of the curators and public when viewing their work.
Two current exhibitions encourage us to see contemporary Indian art in terms of its cultural heritage. "Traditions--Old and New" at the Faith Nightingale Gallery (535 4th Ave.) and "Paths Beyond Tradition" at the Museum of Man in Balboa Park claim a continuity between contemporary Indian art and the rich Native American traditions of weaving, pottery, jewelry making and other arts.
Artists in both shows incorporate traditional motifs from nature and ceremonial life in their work, and most in the Faith Nightingale show also remain faithful to the traditional materials of clay and fiber, feathers and stone.
Few of the artists in either show, however, manage to transcend the art of their ancestors, or even to match its solidity and integrity. Instead, most are ensnared by the very traditions they claim as their inspiration. Mimicry, exploitation and a diluted sense of spirituality are all that link most of the contemporary artists represented here with their forebears.
More than 30 artists are included in "Traditions--Old and New." Mike and Jackie Torivio's spectacular "Yucca Vase," in the Acoma tradition of precise geometric patterning, and Lucy Yearflower Tafoya's miniature black pots in the Santa Clara style of relief decoration demonstrate the vitality of traditional forms when subtly and gracefully extended into the present.
Pahponee's "All My Relations" trilogy of pots merges ancient pictographic emblems of buffalo, birds, snakes and sun with a more contemporary mottled, smoky clay surface. Conrad House's "Two Mountain Lions," austere glass forms with edges encrusted with sand and midsections wrapped with feathers and stones, exude a convincing presence as modern-day fetishes.
Such potent understatement is rare here, however. Much more common are blatant, garish expressions, such as Don Clark's drawings, which strive for a spiritual, mystical aura but instead wallow in the cheap theatrics of science-fiction illustration. George Walbye debases the traditional ceramic wedding vase form (two spouts emerging from a single vessel) by adding a portrait of an Indian bride and groom at the end of each spout. The elegant and symbolic thus succumb to the trite and obvious.
Romanticized, sentimental visions prevail here, as does the stereotype of the Indian as a brave, proud and tragic--not to mention generic--character. In the end, the slick, predictable work insults the very tradition it means to honor.
The Museum of Man exhibition also sags under the burden of abused cliches. William Franklin imposes gratuitous decorative schemes upon traditional geometric patterns and kachina motifs, bending and stretching the forms until they whirl dizzily across his canvases. Virginia Stroud paints idealized scenes of traditional Indian life using an artificially sweet spectrum of colors, with each rosy-cheeked squaw a cookie-cutter image of the one beside her.
Neither of these artists leaves much to the imagination. The melodramatic bronzes of Michael Naranjo and the stiff stone sculpture of Clifford Fragua suffer as well from their makers' formulaic and overly stylized approach.
Only Michelle Tsosie Naranjo's delicate watercolors possess a mystery and magic that doesn't reek of forced spirituality. Her curious, abstracted mask forms float ambiguously on sheets of handmade rice paper, textured and saturated with deep blue and magenta pigments.
In "Dancing for the Rain Gods," an attenuated human figure at the bottom of the thin, vertical sheet lifts one leg and arm in homage to the hovering masks above. Though not profoundly affecting, Naranjo's abstracted impressions nevertheless have a power entirely absent from the other artists' tight transcriptions of physical reality.
Such familiar Indian symbols as the snake, hand and buffalo appear ad infinitum in the paintings and assemblages of Richard Glazer-Danay, but least of all to evoke a mystical or spiritual aura. The artist, familiar to local audiences through his inclusion in the San Diego Museum of Art's "Cultural Currents" exhibition last year, delights in a dense surface decoration that rarely, if ever, coheres into intelligible meaning.
By coating the rotund wooden figures of "Fry Bread Fred and Fry Bread Freda" with vibrant renderings of ice cream sundaes, cherry pies and Coca-Cola, Glazer-Danay pokes fun at the unhealthy diet that plagues many reservation Indians, but he shies away from any deeper sociological or economic statement.
"I'm not searching for truth and beauty," his wall text reads. "I'm just having a good time."
The sheer exuberance of his painted surfaces grants the audience a good time, too.
Robert Freeman's paintings also elicit smiles, but, even more than Glazer-Danay's work, they reduce complex, urgent subjects to simplistic one-liners. Freeman (who is also represented in the Faith Nightingale Gallery show) visualizes the clash between modern and traditional Indian ways of life. Beads and cigarettes, feathers and high heels, tepees and television sets all confront each other in his tableaux. Painted in tired, Southwestern decorator colors, Freeman's work merely glosses over a theme that deserves deeper penetration.
Where are the Native American artists who engage their own history, who address issues affecting Indian life today, and who examine the survival or abandonment of traditional values? "Traditions--Old and New" and "Paths Beyond Tradition" implicitly ask these questions, but neither show provides a satisfying answer.
"Traditions--Old and New" continues through July 29. "Paths Beyond Tradition," which also includes work by David Dawangyumptewa, Edna Davis Jackson and Karen Lynn Noble, can be seen through Sept. 4.