In 1974, nearly a year after Sacheen Littlefeather spoke at the Oscars on behalf of indigenous people, the German Conceptual artist Joseph Beuys flew into New York City and was met at the airport by assistants who wrapped him in felt and drove him to a gallery in SoHo. There, he spent the next three days in an enclosed space with a coyote and a supply of newspapers — the Wall Street Journal, no less, the journalistic flagship for American finance capitalism.
Beuys’ iconic piece of postmodern performance art, entitled I Like America and America Likes Me, isn’t as well-known as Littlefeather’s speech, which she cut short before being escorted off-stage past a furious John Wayne, who was in the wings. But both had the same goal of highlighting the inconvenient truth of the genocide of indigenous peoples.
The numbers are horrifying. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, of course, but when Columbus landed in the “new” world in 1492, there’s a consensus that the Western Hemisphere had an indigenous population of anywhere from 50 to 100 million. Two centuries later, that population had been slashed by as much as 90 percent. It’s that historical context within which the current exhibit at Linfield College’s art gallery in McMinnville finds itself: America Likes Me, organized by gallery curator Josephine Zarkovich, was inspired by and “is in conversation with” Beuys’ seminal 1974 show. The exhibition runs through Oct. 5 and features work by six Oregon-based artists “whose work explores ideas of shared histories, American identity, and the legacy of trauma.”
Linfield College in McMinnville, which celebrated its sesquicentennial anniversary ten years ago, was founded in 1858 on land previously occupied by the Kalapuya tribes, which were scattered across what we now call the Willamette Valley. The exact numbers of tribes and people vary, of course, depending on the source. In its article on the tribe, Wikipedia draws from the book The World of the Kalapuya: A Native People of Western Oregon, which was published by the Benton County Historical Society in 2005. Scholarship puts the number of indigenous who remained during the mid-1800s (when the tribe ceded the entire Willamette Valley drainage area to the U.S. in a treaty signed in Dayton in January 1955) at six hundred. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the population could have been as high as 15,000. These numbers are commensurate with the estimated national decline, so wrap your head around that: In the Willamette Valley’s case, the arrival of white settlers led to a 96 percent reduction in the local population.
This bit of history seems worth mentioning. Which is why I was struck by the fact that nowhere in the America Likes Me exhibit or in the program notes are the Kalapuya mentioned. Perhaps it was more on my mind than it might have been; I’d just returned from seeing two shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where performances are now preceded by an acknowledgement that the company’s art is produced on the land of the Shasta peoples and the Takelma tribe, and an expression of gratitude for their care of the land. I don’t know how many Linfield students will visit America Likes Me, but I suspect many are not from the area. Here’s a terrific opportunity to let them know who was here first.
Upon entering the exhibit hall, the first thing that grabs your eye is a flag on the wall at the far end of the room. Untitled (Sovereignty) was created by Portland-based indigenous queer artist Demian DinéYazhi in collaboration with Noelle V. Sosaya (who is, unfortunately, not featured in the catalog). DinéYazhi was born to the clans Naasht’ézhí Tábąąhá (Zuni Clan Water’s Edge) and Tódích’íí’nii (Bitter Water) and was profiled by ArtsWatch in 2017. Untitled, which is the most openly provocative piece in the exhibit, “takes on the complicated and colonialist symbol of the flag and literally inverts it in an act of queer and indigenous resilience.” A second piece, entitled nahasdzaan bilth ha’n, consists of sand collected from the Columbia River Gorge, all-purpose sand, and a sixth-generation iPhone 6 Plus that’s plugged into a floor socket. The phone is not visible in this artistic mix of actual land and technology, but that’s apparently the point. The program notes say that the phone plays two voice recordings, one by the artist and another by their mother. DinéYazhi elaborates in the notes: “Everything spoken in this audio piece is meant for the Land and no one else. It is as much about burying as it is about revealing truths to all the living energy that has existed and come to pass throughout the history of this earth.”
America Likes Me’s most accessible piece is a wonderful triptych showing scenes from the life of the abolitionist John Brown, and raising “questions about the politics of putting one’s body on the line for racial justice.” Daniel Duford, whose work has been seen in Portland, is the artist. He is a Hallie Ford Fellow, a MacDowell Fellow and the executive director of The Ground Beneath Us, an artist residency program and summer class based in Waterford, Virginia, that focuses on visual narrative and social justice. The three pieces are watercolor and graphite on paper, and feature a couple other prominent Americans: Henry David Thoreau and Harriet Tubman. The morning I was there, the room was dazzlingly bright, with sunlight hitting the triptych at an angle that made Duford’s bold colors even more spectacular.
The program notes are more integral to the show than others I recall seeing here years ago, and go a long way in enhancing one’s intellectual access to the show’s content. The artists were, apparently, happy to respond to the question: “What does it mean?” As clear as the images are in Duford’s triptych, for example, the explanatory notes are indispensable.
The work, as the gallery’s text notes, “raises questions about the politics of putting one’s body on the line for racial justice, an inquiry particularly poignant for white allies. While this idea is relevant to our current American moment, it also echoes the turbulence of the 1960s. When Malcom X spoke at an Organization of Afro-American Unity rally in 1964, he had this to say: ‘We need allies who are going to help us achieve a victory, not allies who are going to tell us to be nonviolent. If a white man wants to be your ally, what does he think of John Brown? You know what John Brown did? He went to war.’”
The show includes a nice mix of portraits, painting and sculpture. Significantly, the bulk of the artists are women. Portland’s Marie Watt, whose work draws from history, biography, Iroquois protofeminism and Indigenous principles, is represented by several pieces from her well-known series on reclaimed wool blankets. Ka’ila Farrell-Smith is a contemporary Klamath Modoc visual artist based in Modoc Point. Her work explores “space in-between the Indigenous and western paradigms.” Julie Green, an Oregon State University professor, was born in Japan and has had her work exhibited both in the United States and internationally. Her 2-Pack Trauma, visible on the right as you walk into the main gallery space, looks to be the most light-hearted — a Warholian display of 34 vinegar box logos. Only upon reading the notes do you learn that the piece was conceived in the artist’s darker moments. Finally, sidony o’neal is a Portland writer and artist from South Sacramento, California, whose work has appeared in The Capilano Review, Women and Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Passages North and SPOOK magazine, among others. sidony currently teaches in the Music & Sonic Arts Department at Portland Community College. The artist has two pieces at America Likes Me, both sculptures: untitled (abacus prototype) constructed from pine, copper and raw silk, and five on it, which consists of bell jars, pennies, paper and vinegar.
The exhibition is sponsored by the Lacroute Art Series and Linfield’s Department of Art. The Lacroute Art Series is made possible by Yamhill County’s own Ronni Lacroute, a Linfield trustee and arts benefactor whose financial support of arts and culture in the area is both broad and deep. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call 503-883-2804, or visit online.
IN NEWBERG, MEANWHILE, the Chehalem Cultural Center continues to rotate in new work, and the latest is Katherine D. McDowell’s “Lake Monotype” series, which she’s been working on since 2008. Not all of them
— she has more than 300 — but the Mezzanine Gallery will feature a
selection of her one-of-a-kind prints of abstract seascapes, which are
made by applying ink to a plate and then running it through a hand-cranked
press with high-quality paper. “I have a need to explore, experiment and
play during my process,” she says in her artist’s statement. “I
intend to decode the secrets behind the visual interpretation of our
natural world — the qualities of light, the subtleties of texture, the
harmonies of color. I experiment with various techniques and compositions,
but most importantly, my process satisfies the universal human need to
play.” The exhibition opens Tuesday, Sept. 18 and runs through Nov. 3.
Just walk through the front door and look up.
ARTS JOURNAL — I was reading Michael Benson’s absorbing new book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece this week and discovered this anecdotal gem from early in their collaboration: The famous sci-fi author told the director that he’d recently seen Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and that he counted Wernher von Braun (the former Nazi rocket scientist who came to the U.S. after the war and was so clearly an inspiration for the film’s deranged title character) as a personal friend. Benson writes: “Kubrick said, ‘Please tell Wernher that I wasn’t getting at him.’ Later, Clarke would comment, ‘I never did, because a) I didn’t believe it, and b) even if Stanley wasn’t, Peter Sellers certainly was.’”