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Art about town

July 2, 2011

Yesterday was First Friday in Fairbanks, Alaska (and in many other communities too). For those of you like my friend Phil who have never been to an FF event and need an introduction, this is what I told him: FF is a once a month opening to the public of galleries and studios usually combined with the showing of new work or work in a new context by local artists. The public then drives around and judges the various openings by the quality of snacks provided.

We visited Well Street Art Co., Well and Good Studios, the Alaska House Art Gallery, and the Fairbanks Art Association’s Bear Gallery. We saw delicate large scale “Bayou Chevreuil” in metal, beautifully detailed nature themed wood cuts, watercolors of scenes from around Alaska, and avant garde sculptures inspired by local natural phenomena. The show that I’m most interested in thinking about here is the one hosted by Well Street: “Eskimo Drawings and Prints” (with art by Kivetoruk Moses, Bernard Kataxac, Wilbur Walluck, Florence Malewotkuk, George Ahgupuk, Robert Mayakok, Milo Minock, and Ken Lisbourne and others not listed on the website).

Although I found the drawings to be absolutely stunning–powerful, evocative, understated, heavily indebted to both realism and the magical–the presentation left me completely dissatisfied. Hidden away on a shelf was a book entitled Eskimo Drawings, which when I looked it up online, I found was originally the catalog to an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum of Art in 2003. The book, and I assume the exhibit in 2003, is filled with art history relevant to the drawings displayed, other historical and political contexts, ethnographic information, interviews with friends, relatives, community members of the artist as well as with the artists themselves, and other pertinent and interesting influences and details. The relationship between the book and the present show was never clear, but perhaps (and I am totally guessing), some of the prints on display were connected with the previous exhibit. However, all of the context from the Anchorage exhibit was missing from the show I went to. To illustrate: there were several Cape Dorset prints from the ’70s alongside drawings from western Alaska from the ’50s and very recent prints from northern Alaska. Rarely was a date or location given for the pieces on display. The various artists had radically different styles, mediums, and content. Really, the only unifying factor was that at some point in history each of the artists’ ethnicity had been deemed “Eskimo”: a term, we should all know by now, that is in disfavor as there are certainly other designations that are much more accurate: Inuit, Inupiat, Yup’ik (and perhaps the artist would even request another more specific group identification). I realize that a gallery is not a museum and that art is given a status in opposition to ethnographic object. However, I think the gallery did a disservice to the artists and the visitors by not only neglecting to point out what any observant person could see–namely that the art on display was widely disparate (a former art teacher taught me: either celebrate or eradicate!)–but that there was also a moment for connectivity and enlightenment for all involved that was lost. And if indeed the reason for not giving more information about the artists and their pieces was to more concretely endow the prints and drawings as “art” above and beyond their exotic content, the show failed in that as well when it homogenized all the pieces into one erroneous and temporally inaccurate category called “Eskimo.”

Phil and I both agreed that the Alaska House set the best spread of snacks.

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