About Last Weekend

Sorry for the slow posts which I'll blame on my long list of assignments at work and on my darling kids who are home for two weeks on spring break. Anyway, I've been meaning to post about two events I attended last weekend. I left each one feeling inspired but for slightly different reasons.

The first was Sue Chenoweth's "Predator and Prey" show at Bragg's Pie Factory in Phoenix. It was stunning. Although Chenoweth is an abstract artist (there is no realistic depiction of predatory violence in her work) her artistry is imbued with pathos that communicates this violence anyway. I'm not a visual artist so I can't explain how she does this. I will tell you what I saw. There were blobs of shiny red paint that looked like fresh blood, smears and shapes that resembled body matter. Shark teeth were used to frame one painting. There was the depiction of a cartoon character being force fed in a mental institution, lots of patterns and textures (like those creepy, miniature and crunchy craft store trees used in dioramas). And in some of the pieces there were glimpses of architectural drawings and maps that felt like man's attempt to control the violent forces in nature.

I left this event thinking about the show's title and wondering specifically about humans who prey on other humans. Are some of us natural predators and others, natural prey? I also wondered which came first for Sue, the obsession or the paintings? Did she find the connective theme after she'd created several pieces or was it the other way around? I thought about the similarities between an art exhibition and a collection of short stories.

The second event was the Indian Fair & Market at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. This is an annual event where hundreds of artists and artisans display Native American art. There were traditional dances and storytelling, fry bread, tons of jewelry, sculpture, paintings.

I began to feel uneasy as I watched the dancing. The dancers were children and adults dressed in traditional clothing and the audience clapped for them in between bites of hot dogs and Sno Cones. It was carnivalesque. Many people in the audience looked well-heeled and they wore expensive pieces of native jewelry made of silver, turquoise and coral.

I felt uneasy, too, as I walked around the booths. A good portion of the art had themes of oppression, nationalism, genocide, "otherness". So my question is this--How does an artist from a community that has been marginalized and unfairly treated celebrate the traditions of her culture without being romantic or essentialist? How does she deal with the violence perpetrated against her community in a new way? And when does she get to think about broader issues like the forces of predator and prey in the natural world?

It may be unfair to compare these events. One was at a gallery while the other was set up outside with vendor booths. But the difference was striking to me. It was the difference between decorative arts and artistic innovation. I felt pushed to do better in my own work.

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