Clare V. McKanna, Jr., Book Review Editor
Visions and Voices: Native American Painting. Edited by Lydia L. Wyckoff. Tulsa: Philbrook Museum of Art, 1996. 147 color illustrations, 364 halftones, index. $70.00 cloth, $37.00 paper.
Reviewed by Alan Kilpatrick, Professor of American Indian Studies, San Diego State University, author of The Night has a Naked Soul (1997).
Beautifully transcribed from the canvas to the page, Visions and Voices presents 484 paintings chosen from the Philbrook Museum of Art’s eminent collection of Native American works.This volume celebrates the Oklahoma “school” of Native American artists by offering a handsome pictorial anthology of 162 of their representative works in either black and white line drawings or in stunning color plates. Readers will, no doubt, be surprised to see that this catalog is organized not by tribal affiliation, or by chronology, or by some imposing intellectual theme. Rather the artists’ work is simply arranged alphabetically. As a result, naturalistic images of birds, deer, horses, and buffalo compete with other highly stylized and formal scenes of hunts, burials, and ball games. Throughout, we are treated to a kaleidoscope of traditional images: Hopi eagle dancers, Choctaw bone pickers, priests dressed as Zuni harvest gods, and Comanche scalp dancers, to mention but a few.
Wyckoff and the other curators are to be congratulated for assembling such a formidable cast of Native artists to grace this book. We are told in the narrative that many of the artists had no formal training, others studied independently, while some honed their skills at Indian institutions like Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma and the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. Some artists like Gorman, Blue Eagle, Houser, Kabotie, and Tiger have achieved considerable stature in the modern world of galleries and auctions, while other painters presented here remain largely unknown to the general public. A few artists in this collection remain anonymous.
Accompanying each plate are scattered quotes from various interviews with these artists, snatches of oral history which illuminate the private vision of the artist. Commendably, the editor has adopted this polyvocal approach and has stepped out of the frame, allowing each individual artist (or their relative) to speak about the nature of their career, life, or the intent of their composition. One quote by a modern Cherokee artist aptly summarizes the theme of this body of work: “… my goal is to leave things in this world after I pass on that people can see later and feel good about. Or if they get some kind of spiritual inspiration off of it, then my time here and what I did would have [been] …worth it.” The book will, no doubt, find a currency among Art Historians both as an non-western aesthetic product as well as a compendium of the “Oklahoma” school of Indian painters. Despite this singular importance, the imagery here, with its eloquent and economic use of space, transcends these limited categories and speaks to us both about a timeless Indian past as well as to the primal human will to create. Thus, the book stands on its own merits as visual testimony to the fertile imagination and flowing talent of the Native American sensibility.