Native American Works on Paper

by Theresa Bembnister September 11, 2010

Kiakshuk...Man and Seal (1964)...stonecut litho...Purchase of the EPAMA

There’s one week left to see Native American Works on Paper at the El Paso Museum of Art. After five months of display, the exhibition in the museum’s first floor Gateway Gallery closes September 19.

Unfortunately, the Gateway Gallery is closer aesthetically to El Paso’s Cielo Vista Mall (complete with light and sound filtering in from the adjacent museum gift shop) than your typical white cube or cathedral-like museum space. With low ceilings, harsh track lighting and wide pillars with sconces and shiny black tiles, you’d expect the nearby staircase to lead to a food court rather than to the permanent collection installation. Orange Julius, anyone?

Draper, Robert (Navajo-American, 1938-2000)... Canyon with Wagons...watercolor on paper...Bequest of the Gosnell Estate

Despite the challenges imposed by the exhibition space, the thirteen prints and drawings from the museum’s permanent collection manage to captivate. The works depict landscapes, everyday domestic scenes, animals and ceremonial dancers in a variety of styles. Kiakshuk composes his “Man and Seal” lithograph with flat, graphic shapes. Robert Draper’s “Canyon with Wagons” watercolor uses thin washes for the majestic landscape and thick daubs of paint for minuscule details such as trees and tiny, cowboy-hat-wearing settlers. Woody Crumbo’s silkscreen of a buck, a doe and a fawn in a snow bank has a fantastical palette and is adorable without being cutesy.

The first line of the exhibition essay posted next to Crumbo’s silkscreens takes a tone of obligation: “This exhibition of works on paper by Native American artists fills the El Paso Museum of Art’s mission toward educating our audience on American artists.” The essay’s authors note that the exhibition is important because the “artists have been frequently left out of the canon of art history.”

Remington, Frederic (1861-1909)...The Mystery (A Sign of Friendship) (1909)...o/c 27 1/8 x 40 1/8 F 34 7/8 x 47 ¾...Gift of EPAMA Members’ Guild

Of course the museum includes in its permanent collection installation plenty of depictions of American Indians by dead white guys. Paintings by Taos Society of Artists members Julius RolshovenJoseph Henry Sharp, and E. Irving Couse, and celebrated illustrator and artist Frederic Remington line the walls of the second-floor American art gallery. 
The discrepancy between the information presented in the labels for the permanent-installation paintings and the works on paper draws attention to the same historical omission this exhibition was designed to remedy. The labels for the permanent-collection paintings include the year each work was made and the artists’ birth and death dates. Only four of the labels for works by American Indians include the date the work was made; birth or death dates are given for only five of the eleven artists in the exhibition. One way to help reinsert these artists into art historical narratives would be to provide the basic facts about their lives and work.


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