Press: Native American Art : April/May 2017 : Modernist Weavings
Native American Art Magazine
April / May 2017
A new exhibition, Navajo Textiles as Modern Art - Then and Now, is ongoing at Nizhoni Ranch Gallery in Sonoita, Arizona. The exhibition - a companion exhibit to the Dazzled eye: Navajo Weavings from the Getzwiller Collection at the Tucson Desert Art Museum in Tucson, Arizona - focuses on the modern aspects of Navajo Weavings, and illustrates the importance of Native American design on the very fabric of American art styles.
Pieces in the gallery show included strong examples of eye dazzler weavings, which emerged during a difficult transition period for the Navajo.
"They were adjusting to their new life on the reservation after a devastating four-year forced confinement by the United States government at Bosque redondo, a desolate area on the Pecos river in eastern New Mexico," the museum catalog states. "During Bosque Redondo, nearly one in four people would die due to malnutrition, exposure or rampant illness. In 1868, they were allowed to return to their ancestral lands in Northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. However, they were no longer able to provide for themselves without assistance from the US government; Kit Carson had destroyed their crops, poisoned their water holes, stolen their horses, and killed their sheep years earlier in an effort to starve the Navajo into submission."
These hardships greatly affected the navajo people, including their weavings, which fundamentally changed due to limited resources. For instance, yarns were hard to come by. Only two sources were available to weavers: Germantown yarns, and unraveled yarns from American flannel or low-grade cloth called bayeta. These new sources of yarn were often dyed synthetically from commercial dyes and, although they were not natural or traditional, the inspired weavers to create new designs wit the expanding color opportunities. Additionally, the difficulties of the previous years deeply affected many of the weavers who began to push the boundaries outward.
"This sort of thing, how Native American art preceded modern art, is not broadly understood subject no matter what way you look at it, which is why exhibits like this are really important," says Nizhoni Ranch Gallery owner, Steve Getzwiller, who adds that some of the most famous modern artists, including drip painter Jackson Pollock and many prominent Op artists, have cited Native American designs as important influences on their work. "We're trying to make the point that Native American art, particularly Navajo weavings, were very influential on the art world. When I show my collection - and I've been a passionate collector for 45 years - people are always amazed to see the connections to modern art."
Weavings in the gallery show include a twill serape-style blanket from roughly the 1890s. The piece features two distinct rainbow patterns: fields of jagged chevrons sandwiching in a tighter, thinner arrangement of smooth lines. The coarser twill, which was common for saddle blankets at that time, was used here for a wearing blanket, Getzwiller says. "You can see that the design flows really well," he adds. "It makes quite a wonderful statement."
An 1880s four-ply Germantown rug will also be on view. The blanket features a repeating diamond motif, but with halves and quarters of diamonds that don't entirely match up together, creating an optical illusion-like quality to the design and its masterful execution. "It's amazing and I'd never seen anything like it," getzwiller says. "I acquired it 15 years ago from a dealer in Washington. How that optical illusion was created, I couldn't begin to tell you. Only a small handful of weavers could have mastered that."
Similar optical effects can be seen in a Great Star Chant Way Germantown pictorial from the 1880s. A five-pointed star rests in a red field in the center of the blanket, and around it is a diamond pattern that repeats outward in a variety of colors. "It just radiates when you look at it," the gallery owner says. "The way it's made really gives you the feeling of movement."
In a late classic blanket with unique Spider Woman design, an ocean of red is rendered around abstracted lines and a central diamond shape. Getzwiller says that these blankets at that time - roughly the 1880s - were designed to be worn, which meant the central design would have been prominently displayed on the wearer's back. "You can see that really strong with this piece," he says. "Spider Woman was the mythological woman who taught them to weave. A blanket this nice would have likely not been made for trading purposes, but for someone else. It's really stunning."
A later work, from around the 1930s, features the silhouette of a churro sheep's head. the imagery hints at a vital part of Navajo history, when Kit Carson and others tried, and ultimately failed, to exterminate the sheep in a terrible campaign against the Navajo.
The Nizhoni Ranch Gallery exhibition will feature as many as 70 works, many of them historic pieces, but also a number of weavings by contemporary artists such as Selena Yazzie, GH, and Cecelia Nez.
The exhibition at the gallery continues through June 30, and the museum exhibition in Tucson runs through May 28.