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The Way We Live: American Indian Art of the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada
The Way We Live: American Indian Art of the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada is on display through March 31 at the Nevada Museum of Art, 160 W. Liberty St. For more information, visit nevadaart.org or call 329-3333. The museum hosts a related workshop, Pine Needle Baskets, 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. Feb. 24.
In a tidy painting studio in an industrial park space near the airport, as the sun sinks, Ray Valdez is still on the phone. An artist, high-school art teacher, father, spiritual leader, and recovery leader for prisoners, Valdez is not the kind of guy who clocks out for weekends. The scent of burnt sage lingering in his carpeted, spotlit showroom is from a ceremony he’d led there earlier in the day.
With waist-length hair, an untucked black button-up, and discs of abalone dangling from his ears, it’s clear that Valdez, in the 55 years since he was born into a Yaqui Indian tribe in Texas, has accumulated a lot of stories and reflections.
Fitting his spiritual tradition into his busy, modern life is complex business, and his acrylics and watercolors reflect that. He paints the natural environment, often clouded by environmental atrocities, or, say, a lone Native drummer, tears visible, painted onto pages of the New York Times entertainment section. (“I’m a canvas guy,” he winks, “but we’re resourceful.”)
Among his goals is helping other Native Americans find their stride in the present after generations of geographical displacement and its resulting problems.
Valdez is among 18 artists whose work hangs in two modest sized galleries in the Nevada Museum of Art’s “The Way We Live: American Indian Art of the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada.”
The museum commissioned new work for the show, asking artists to consider a long list of big, potentially ambiguous themes, including the environment, conflict, politics, spiritual worldviews, and changing relationships to the natural environment.
While each artist has a lifetime of reflections on these very topics, each got only a few feet of wall space on which to express them.
A few artists in the show use their own finely-honed visual languages to best use their sparse wall-space allocation with concise points. For example, Clayton Sampson’s immensely confident cartoon drawings, which indict the convenience-store-food culture that’s impacted the health of many Natives, pack a poignant punch. In one image, a man’s woven sandal unravels just enough to reveal that it’s made of french fries.
Most of the rest of the show comes off as if the museum let each artist write a compelling lead sentence to his or her story but didn’t give them the output resources to get to the narrative meat.
This exhibit could have been a golden opportunity to introduce a general audience to a treasure trove of perspectives about how individuals have come to term with cultural contrasts and conflicts, and how they’ve used visual art to do that. There are enough shreds of personal narrative to make me really want to hear more.
The concept, especially with such broad topical parameters, might have been better served with a different format than a small group show, maybe a StoryCorps-type project or a well-researched book. (The show has a slim, nice-looking catalog, but it’s filled with brief artists’ bios that only touch the surface of lives that look rich and thoughtful.) A documentary film would have worked great. Or even a series of studio tours.
“The creator gave us these gifts, these ceremonies and traditions, and said use them,” Valdez said.
He wasn’t talking about the NMA’s curatorial mission right then. He was talking about relying on ancient spiritual practices to get by in modern life, but the museum could have taken that advice and used its leadership position to amplify 18 important voices. Instead, each is heard whispering the first line of what’s probably a great story we haven’t yet heard.