Newark Museum expands Native American galleries in impressive fashion

By Dan Bischoff | For The Star-Ledger
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on December 18, 2016

Jeffrey Gibson's "Come Alive! (I Feel Love)" was commissioned for the reinstallation by the Newark Museum in 2015. Gibson, who is Choctaw/Cherokee, keeps a studio in upstate New York, combining traditional Native American subjects and materials (like the tin and copper jingles on Come Alive! that many Native Americans sew onto dance costumes) with abstract art concepts.

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How Native American art is displayed has always been a fraught issue. From the earliest days of Wild West Shows to modern academic museums, exhibits of indigenous art evoke questions of who looks at the art and why, not to mention how one should view the artifacts of displaced peoples on the very lands where they once held sway.

The Montclair Art Museum has permanent galleries with black walls and ceiling, so their parade of beaded war shirts and feathered bonnets, moccasins, carvings and patterned pottery can be spotlighted, picking out the brilliant colors -- and subtly suggesting a mournful procession.

The Newark Museum has just completed its reinstallation of Native American art in two galleries on either side of the skylit staircase where two of the museum's buildings meet. Each is painted a dusty but bright shade. The objects seem more like art and less like ethnography, especially as the galleries open the "Seeing America" theme Newark uses to unite its sprawling collection of American art, a specialty for over a century.

Like Montclair, the Newark galleries give credit to descendants of the Lenape, who were forcibly moved out of New Jersey to the West beginning in the 18th century. And both mix contemporary Native American artists among the often nameless makers of historical objects.

That's important to modern identities, according to Newark curator Tricia Laughlin, because it stresses "the continuity of indigenous traditions as ongoing, living traditions passed down through generations," but it's also just "practical, allowing us to give a sense of the breadth and arc of many different cultures and types of practice within a small space."

"Just as the Harlem Renaissance and the art of the Civil Rights era make sense within the chronological narrative" of American art, Laughlin Bloom says, "the new Native American and Latin American rotations throughout 'Seeing America' were placed where they are because they fit in terms of what was happening in American art and history, which has been multicultural from its inception."

Art history often feels like a trail of breadcrumbs through time, following a certain form across cultures. Newark's collection is deep enough to make direct correspondences in Native American art across generations, like that between the Tlingit chest from Alaska carved with sea mammal eyes and inlaid with operculum shell, and a glass chest made in 2015 based on such traditional chests by Preston Singletary, a Tlingit living in Seattle, where he picked up cast and carved glass.

The showpiece of this trail is Choctaw/Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson's "Come Alive! (I Feel Love)," a multi-media statue commissioned by the museum this year and set on a plinth in the staircase atrium between the two galleries.

It looks like a human figure made of rawhide, wood, stone arrowheads, steel wire, and scores of tin and copper jingles that Native Americans sew into dance costumes. Gibson was born in Colorado in 1972, but his studio is in upstate New York, and much of his work makes glancing reference to the history of abstract art through Native idioms. 

"Jeffrey Gibson's piece is somewhat unique in its placement," Laughlin Bloom says, "it connects with the contemporary art on the second floor and also has strong connections with the historical objects in Native Artists of North America."

As always at Newark, many of the most beautiful objects were originally for everyday use, or at least based on them -- Pomo baskets woven with bright hummingbird feathers, seal gut parkas by the Inuit, the bold red-and-black button blanket by Canadian artist Karen Johnson of British Columbia. Newark has a way of making the most mundane objects (snow goggles carved in antler, a Chilkat blanket made of cedar bark and mountain goat wool) seem like contemporary sculpture, which they do in fact resemble.

There are so many cultures represented -- from the Lenape to Alaskan tribes in one direction and Florida tribes in the other -- in such a small space that certain crude distinctions jump to your attention right away. For instance, the stark color harmonies bracketed by areas of flat white created by Native Americans with glass beads brought in trade by Europeans as early as the 18th century, contrasted with soft vegetable dyes of Navajo traditional weavings. 

But it is as an introduction to the American collection that the new galleries really shine. Like Gibson, Native Americans have always been abstract artists, colorists, and comedians at once. And that does sound a lot like all contemporary American art, doesn't it?

Newark Museum, 49 Washington St., Newark

Through Aug. 11. Open Wednesday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m.

Tickets: Adults $15, children, seniors, and students $8, Newark residents, children under two, and students attending Newark colleges and universities free. For more information call (973) 596-6550 or see www.newarkmuseum.org

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