Native American artist Wendy Red Star considers different cultures from a variety of angles—consumption and commodity, contradictions within community, insider/outsider identity— in her solo show at Haw Contemporary.
Titled “Parading Culture (Tokens, Gold, & Glory),” the exhibit evidences Red Star’s characteristic humor and wit as well as her flair for experimentation with color, form, and materials. She draws from varied influences, ranging from daily experience, collected ephemera, real or imagined narratives, and her traditional Crow background.
The exhibit “starts with gold,” in Red Star’s words. Her multifaceted Deer Decoys entice the viewer with shiny, golden surfaces, not unlike the natural-looking decoys used to lure other deer. In a gallery talk in conjunction with the opening, the artist said that her family never utilized these life-sized figures while hunting in Montana, but noted that they can be incorporated into Cabela’s® version of the sport.
Diverging from the taxidermy tradition of mounting only the deer’s head, Red Star displays just the bodies—“the other part of the missing trophy”—in her sculptures. Instead of heads, flowing Mylar fringe streams from the necks of these golden statues. The artist conveys her view that the entire animal should be appreciated, as in Native culture, not prized for simply one part. Red Star simultaneously addresses feminist issues, considering the way women are often only esteemed for portions of their bodies rather than their entire being.
A series of self-portraits with her young daughter line the walls of an adjacent gallery. Reclining and wrapped in traditional Pendleton blankets, the two figures reference the poses of Native people captured in historical photographs. In a subsequent email interview, Red Star states that the photographs also look like a typical Sears® family portrait. “I wanted to modernize this pose by using pre-determined Photoshop filters,” she said.
The ten works are identical, except for their use of different Photoshop filters. Some employ a black background; others place the figures against grey or white. A few images are crisp and defined, while others are pixilated and blurry. The effect is to place the focus on the blankets, and their representation of wealth, instead of the human faces.
Pendleton blankets also play a large role in Red Star’s Coyote Decoys works. She paints the animals in candy-bright colors, mounts them on wood-pallet pedestals and drapes them with striped, brightly-colored blankets. “I was thinking about the history of the fur trade with Native people and settlers,” she said in the later correspondence. “The exchange of furs for goods, and often the chosen goods were blankets…These pieces are a comment on commerce both past and present.”
The ownership of Pendleton blankets, still highly valued in Native culture, denotes a certain status—at Crow Fair they are used in parades; they adorn teenagers’ cars and are given as highly regarded gifts. The blankets are not used traditionally as covers for beds, and in her gallery talk Red Star humorously notes that in Crow culture, “You never take the tag off a Pendleton blanket…they are like gold.”
At the end of her talk, the audience raised the question of authenticity within Native American art. Red Star spoke to problems with the term: although the word “authenticity” originates from a western viewpoint, some Native artists struggle with this issue.
When asked in the interview if it is important to Red Star to maintain the “Native artist” designation, or whether her work should be considered mainstream contemporary art, she responded, “My thoughts are to continue making the work that I am interested in making—work that is relevant to my perspective. The issue is … the circumstances in which we live, which is in a colonized society. I do feel that institutions and the general public are starting to think in more decolonized and open ways.”
“Wendy Red Star: Parading Culture (Tokens, Gold, & Glory)” continues at Haw Contemporary, 1600 Liberty St., through Feb. 27. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday. For more information,816. 842. 5877 or www.hawcontemporary.com.