Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
Native Faces: Indian Cultures in American Art.
By Patricia Trenton and Patrick Houlihan. Los Angeles: Los Angeles Athletic Club and the Southwest Museum, 1984. Collection and Exhibition List. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. 118 Pages. Price unavailable.
Reviewed by Mick Gidley, Director of the Centre for American & Commonwealth Arts and Studies, University of Exeter, England, and author of Kopet: A Documentary Narrative of Chief Joseph’s Last Years (1981), American Photography (1983), and With One Sky Above Us (1979).
This book results from an unusual and enterprising collaborative effort by the financially well-endowed and exclusive Los Angeles Athletic Club (LAACO) and the Southwest Museum, a fiercely independent institution founded by Charles Lummis in Los Angeles’ Highland Park in 1907. In 1984 the two institutions pooled their considerable resources – LAACO’s collection of western art, one of the finest in the nation, and the Museum’s out-standing holdings in Western Native American material culture – to mount “Native Faces,” an exhibition of complementary paintings and artifacts which, taken together, provided an exciting visual display of the rich Indian cultures of California, the interior Southwest, and the Plains. Native Faces, written by the curators of the exhibition (Patricia Trenton of LAACO and Patrick Houlihan of the Southwest Museum) and brimming with fine photographs of items in it, served as a catalog and constitutes a short study of the interaction between a number of artists and the Native American people and cultures which formed their predominant subject matter.
The strongest part of the book is that devoted to the Pueblo cultures of the Southwest, especially Taos, for so long both a vital center of Tiwa-speaking Indian life and a haven for Anglo artists, among them significant figures like Joseph Sharp, Ernest Blumenchein and Victor Higgins. Here Trenton and Houlihan are able, literally, to let us see photographs of their chosen artists at work (including a remarkable one of Sharp in his studio surrounded by some of the artifacts he deployed in his paintings), images of their models, reproductions of paintings, and baskets, blankets, pots and other artifacts, all in helpful juxtaposition. For example, Walter Ufer’s 1917 painting The Red Moccasins is followed by a photograph of a pair of high Pueblo moccasin boots of a startling redness. Sometimes the artifact presented seems to be the actual one used in the painting, as in the case of a Navajo rug depicted by E. Irving Course in his Indian Blanket Seller.
The Plains Indians are less well covered, though Sharp’s work is again featured, this time in his powerful portrait of Two Moons, a Cheyenne leader who fought at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Representation of California’s Indian cultures is relatively sparse – and for the San Diego area non-existent. What there is concentrates on one tribal group, the Pomo of the Redwoods region in the north of the state, and on just two artists, Henry Raschen and the sentimental but interesting Grace Hudson. The imbalance in favor of the Southwest is regrettable, especially the total lack of representation of California desert Indian culture groups, but, in view of the artistic prominence of Taos, it is not surprising. It is also related to the fact that the Pueblos, especially those of the Hopi and Taos, have come to stand for the picturesque in Indian life. Why such a situation came about is a question that I think this book ought to have raised.
Each author’s commentaries, especially those on the paintings by Trenton, elucidate aspects of the various painters’ styles and, more important, the components of their visions of Indian life, and this is a valuable service. However, there is sometimes an oversimplification, an implied assumption that a photograph offers “reality” while the painting is, if beautiful, a kind of fiction. In truth, of course, the photograph is also a fiction. In its relation to the culture under consideration it, like even a basket or boot wrenched out of that cultural context, is a representation. An imaginative act on the part of the viewer/reader is required if a sense of the culture itself is to be felt on the pulse. In other words, I do not think that Native Faces goes far enough in exploring the intellectual ramifications of its own pioneering position. But it does give us a healthy nudge towards achieving greater understanding of these material and artistic texts in relation to their contexts, at least in the case of Taos. And the listing of a range of relatively untapped sources, while valuable in itself, should prove an inducement to further research.