Feeling pixilated from too many art fairs and too much art that is digitally generated, enhanced, modified or otherwise manipulated, I went in search of art that is direct and primal. I found it in two exhibitions devoted to art involving trees and, more specifically, tree bark. Finally, artworks that haven’t had all their spiritual life Photoshopped out of them!
The UBS Art Gallery is presenting "Gifts of the Forest: Native Traditions in Wood & Bark," organized by the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. Yes, the Mashantucket Pequots are the same southeastern Connecticut Native Americans who have made millions through gambling, tourism and entertainment. They have a first-class museum on their land in Connecticut, tribally owned and operated, and are now sharing some of its pieces.
The exhibition surveys the use of wood, wood burl, splints and bark by Woodlands Indians. A capacious term, "Woodland Indians" encompasses many tribes that were originally scattered from the east coast of what was to become the United States to beyond the Mississippi River, occupying the northeastern two-thirds of the country and extending well into what is now Canada. The work ranges in date from the 18th century to the present, with contemporary pieces underlining the continuity of various wood-working traditions.
In "Gifts of the Forest," the type of wood and the part of the tree used is carefully matched to the purpose of each object. For example, because white or paper birch bark has the ability to shed water, it is extensively used for bowls, baskets, and canoes. There are several models of canoes on display plus a full-sized one made around 1997 by Renee Martin, a member of the Micmac tribe. Once all the materials were gathered -- birch bark, spruce root, spruce gum, cedar, ash wood and bear grease -- the canoe took several days to construct.
More decorative is a birch bark hamper from the early 20th century, made by the Ojibwa with dyed spruce root lacings and designs of stylized trees, clover and diamond-shaped leaves scraped into the bark.
One noteworthy abstract design is a shallow basket made of a single piece of elm bark that was curved, split at the ends and had the ends tied. Made in the early 20th century by the Iroquois, it was used to gather maple sap. It would look right at home in any modern apartment.
One oddity is a thin sheet of birch bark that has a design bitten into it. This is a female artistic tradition, found in the Beaver Lake area of Saskatchewan.
Native-Americans have been making and decorating utilitarian items that non-Native Americans have coveted for a very long time, of course. An outstanding set of five nesting baskets of birch bark with geometric designs in dyed porcupine quills on the lids was created by the Micmac of Nova Scotia. The set was a gift to an Englishwoman around 1838.
Today, Clara Neptune Keezer, a Passamaquoddy, is one of the women carrying on a 19th-century tradition of making splint baskets in the form of vegetables and fruits for sale to non-Native Americans. Her vivid strawberry basket has splints woven into three-dimensional furls.
Among the many attractive wood pieces, an effigy bowl with a spirit head at either end is remarkable for its pared down elegance and its maker’s sensitivity to the grain of the wood. Somewhere between a test pattern and moiré silk, the grain of the bowl connects the two heads like so many bolts of lightning. It was made in the 19th century in the Northeastern Woodlands.
"Gifts of the Forest" also has snow shoes and lacrosse equipment, both of which were used by Native Americans for eons, plus an array of carved, crooked knife handles in both realistic and abstract designs, and several contemporary examples of painting on bark.
"Gifts of the Forest: Native Traditions in Wood & Bark," Jan. 25-Apr. 27, 2007, at the UBS Art Gallery, 1285 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10019
Body painting, ground painting, rock painting and carving, sculptures and paintings on the interior of wood shelters, while still practiced, evolved into more portable paintings on eucalyptus bark. The earliest bark paintings collected date to the 19th century.
Many Aboriginal artists are noted today for their work on canvas and paper, art which reuses many of the motifs of earlier works. As Aboriginal peoples have moved to more urban areas, artists have used other media, too, from print-making to video.
Bark paintings show up in commercial venues less and less these days. That fact alone makes the exhibition and sale of "Vintage Aboriginal Bark Paintings" at Molloy Tribal Art in SoHo well worth a visit. Another is the quality of the work.
From Oenpelli in Western Arnhem Land at the northern tip of Australia comes a work with friendly Mimi and Namadoros spirits. You even get an x-ray view of the inner organs of one of the beings, a technique commonly employed by some Aboriginal artists. The images of the two spirits here twist around a sacred turtle and a lizard partially out of a bundle in an energetic composition. Like most of the works in the show it dates to the 1960s or ‘70s.
Even earlier is a Tiwi dot painting, made in the first half of the 20th century on Bathurst Island, located off the northwest coast of Australia to the north of Darwin. Composed of rows of dots in white, black, ocher and burnt sienna, this bark painting can be read like a map by the Aborigines of the area, although to outsiders it has a balanced abstract composition that makes it alluring for purely esthetic reasons.
Bark paintings can show a great deal of variation, based on where they were made. Different tribes and clans developed their own styles. An oval bark painting in the exhibition could only have come from Port Keats in the Northern Territory, for example, because that’s the only area where oval pieces of bark are used.
While the names of many of the Aborigine artists working on bark in the early to mid-20th century have been lost, "Old Coppa" (a coppa being a tribal law carrier and interpreter) is remembered as the maker of a painting honoring the sacred emu from the 1960s. Here, the past, present and future are tied together in one cosmological symbol. A large emu represents the past, her two chicks the present and the egg seen within the large emu is the future.
Three more objects round out the show: a Tiwi painted-bark mortuary basket used for offerings; a 19th-century "bull roarer," a carved flat piece of wood that makes sounds when whirled around the head on a string, and that was used to ward off enemies as well as for communication; and a stone "churinga." More often seen in wood, this stone churinga is decorated with spirals that can be read as clan symbols or as messages by those who know how to decipher them. It dates from the 19th century or earlier.
I can’t understand the full meaning of these pieces, but I can understand and appreciate their visual impact. Singly and together, they express a commitment to living in the natural world, whether in fear, awe or delight, or in some combination of all three.
Prices range from the hundreds to the low thousands of dollars.
"Vintage Aboriginal Bark Paintings," Feb 13-Apr. 14, 2007, at Molloy Tribal Art, 594 Broadway, Suite 205A, New York, N.Y. 10012.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.