The pensive blues, the dignified reds, the warm, embracing yellows and browns—these colors give life to the desert landscape and to the paintings and textiles on view at the Heard Museum as part of the exhibition Personal Journeys: American Indian Landscapes. Featuring artists of Native American heritage, like Elizabeth Yazzie and Fritz Scholder, the exhibition offers an alternative interpretation to Western artist’s hackneyed depiction of a simplified relationship between Native Americans and their land. Whereas in Southwest art the landscape is diluted and the Native American subject is a passive object vulnerable to the Western gaze, in Personal Journeys: American Indian Landscapes the landscape is modernized and imbued with personal narratives and cultural symbolism from the Native American artist’s viewpoint; thus, the subject becomes the creator, able to take control and create their own experience of their native heritage for the viewer to interpret, absorb, and learn.
After walking around the entire exhibition, housed in a medium sized gallery in the back of the museum, my first impression of the exhibition is that it seems organized along formal styles, with the more naturalistic paintings hung at the entrance, proceeded by more abstract, stylistic artworks. Tony Abeyta’s Canyon painting is the first artwork, displayed next to the exhibition title, and Fritz Scholder’s Taos Landscape resides nearby in a section of large scale gestural landscapes. In Abeyta’s Canyon, a road in the foreground winds through tremendous red canyons while heavy clouds in the distance bring streaks of rain upon these canyons. The scene is meant to represent Abeyta’s experience of hiking in Taos among a rocky landscape devoid of human activity.
Compared to Scholder’s Taos, Abeyta’s painting follows a more naturalistic style, with a single point perspective and linear forms creating depth and clarity. Despite my preference for the former’s sketchy style of fluid forms and flat colors, Abeyta’s Canyon is evidence of the multitude of styles afforded to contemporary Native American artists; rather than sticking to one, the artists in the exhibition each implement their own specific style to communicate what their heritage means to them.
From painted landscapes, the exhibition transitions to incredible textile artworks; the ones that stand out the most, in my opinion, are the wool textiles of Larry Yazzie and Elizabeth Yazzie. Larry’s weaved rug titled Blue Canyon Transition conveys the artist’s home in Blue Canyon, Arizona through a symmetrical composition of energetic, repetitive geometrical designs in subdued grays, blues, and reds. The picture’s flat background—a light tan color—protrudes from the wall with the help of the wall’s dark blue tone. Using traditional materials and designs of Native American rugs and blankets, Larry links his artistic practice to generations before him, yet his practice is also rooted in contemporary art through his recognition of the flat picture plane and his abstraction of form to specify movement of the canyon’s changing elements.
In contrast to Larry Yazzie’s, and the previously discussed landscapes, uninhabited representation of the Southwest, Elizabeth Yazzie’s weaved rug is populated with Native Americans, some in traditional garments, partaking in daily and festive activities such as transporting goods by horse drawn carts and dancing at wedding celebrations. With a schematic layout, Elizabeth shows us the richness of this social life occurring against the backdrop of triangular mountains that mark the separation of the ground and the sky in the upper half of the composition. Nostalgic sentiment permeates through these social scenes of pre-modern life, as though the artist wished to evoke the sense of community and abundance before the advent of modernity and its negative effects on Nation populations.
A similar triangular motif reoccurs in Pablita Velarde’s Untitled watercolor, in which red and yellow triangular mountains give way to a cool blue traversing throughout the landscape. This blue symbolizes the rivers that the deity Avanyu, the guardian of water, created at the bequest of the rain goddess Yei—the thin, elongated figure in the upper left. As can be seen in various artworks of the Pueblo people and in Velarde’s painting, Avanyu takes the symbolic form of a serpent. The kiva murals from the 15th century, which were created for ritualistic purposes, were a source of inspiration for Velarde’s abstract rendering of this mythological scene. Although the landscape paintings have their own merit, I think the art of Velarde’s, and of Elizabeth Yazzie and Larry Yazzie, are more significant in preserving traditional materials and styles in contemporary art, while incorporating their own individual voice in their artistic practice.