Monday, September 10, 2012

Anchorage: Last 1st Friday

     As a cultural bookend to our brief residency in the Mat-Su area (more on this new development in a follow-up post), it was great to wander about downtown and catch a few art openings for September's "First Friday" in los Anchorage. Courtesy of the Alaska Dispatch, the evening's roster was for the most part a complete surprise, as their posted schedule had actually been for last year's lineup at a couple venues, but it didn't matter much in the grand scheme of things. Three galleries were on our initial list, with an impromptu diversion to a fourth, and the ultimate abandonment of some ones farther away from the core downtown area as the evening began to run down. The International Gallery of Contemporary Art, the Alaska Native Arts Foundation and the Arctic Rose Art Gallery each had a diverse range of aesthetic offerings, but the main show was waiting at the end.

     Fairbanks artist Da-ka-xeen Mehner had a major exhibition at the cultural epicenter of "The City of Lights & Flowers" at the Anchorage Museum. Vastly improved from my last visit, the museum now boasts of a completed renovation effort that showcases collections on permanent display along with multiple galleries. Da-ka's show occupied its own wing on the top floor, and by that I mean to say is it really inhabited the physical space, and despite being comprised of several different sections or pieces, it was unified as a cohesive, singular installation. Which, like a 3-legged stool, depended on offering and exploring multiple facets and personal perspectives to coalesce upon a central theme. What was particularly exciting was to see how the scale and reach of the concept was expanded upon by utilizing multi-media: digital technology, projectors, and sound all rested on a primal foundation built with iron and skin. As seen in the image below of the artist presenting to the public, even the lines of the longhouse panels meshed with the architectural layout of the room, and the exhibit didn't seem all that out of place against the backdrop of the largest city in the state of Alaska.
     The written text of the artist's statement was a crucial aspect that linked all three arenas together, but this wasn't necessarily an impediment to understanding or aesthetic appreciation, as the works stood on their own and functioned separate from the deeper meanings that motivated Da-ka to create the pieces. I always review a show first without reading such verbage, even avoiding piece titles, until after studying the work and interpreting from an continuum of objectivity. In other words, what do I think it means without the specific, deliberate intent of the artist telling me, and what does it mean to me personally. Even after acknowledging the pervasive influence of unconscious and institutionalized racism which effects much of American culture, Alaska to a large degree is different/better than many other places I've lived as far as preserving, promoting and integrating awareness of indigenous culture. So there is a certain degree of context that work like this appears within, and the average Alaskan viewer is not only more informed about but has a set of assumptions about "Native art." This exhibit, despite the earlier noted observation about fitting right in within an urban setting, manages to retain a separation from the usual preconceived stereotypes and yet preserve a subtle distinction and offer a unique take of its own (see here for an interesting discussion on the terms "contemporary" versus "traditional" when applied to Native art). So even despite now appearing on the radio and effectively signed to a major label, "the song" in the show title would be analogous to an alternative music station, especially when compared to the rest of the dial.
     The inner commentary it provoked in me was to acknowledge the generational loss of my own ethnicity, abandoned and subsumed into the homogenized blandness of commercialized, corporate citizenship that constitutes a modern American consumer of culture. On a related note, this show dovetailed with another exhibition, "True North," that occupied the next floor down (which also sported a few more pieces from Da-ka). Here is where the geopolitical and cultural diversity of many artists from around the planet were loosely grouped under an overarching biome. Location, location, location: where you are and where you're from informs your work - so this presented an extended artistic family that shared a fundamental, common lineage in a different sense. That would be my clan.

     The evening wound out with a fabulous dinner at Humpy's, topped off with discovering an exceptionally tasty "Dolly Varden" nut brown ale from Kassik's Kenai brewery. It was there that I connected the dots about how the entire state was briefly tied together into one artistic tapestry and where individual threads ran from multiple shows in the 'Banks to works from remote villages to the proverbial Big City. While I have been spending most of my time either up in the mountains or drawing at home, getting "out" for gigs like this is a reminder and reaffirmation of what an incredible place this is and how it is peopled with amazing talent. Now it's back home, back to the woods and back to the studio.

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