By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Back in the ’80s, one of the hot topics of discussion in the art world was the intersection of art and shamanism — the ecstatic animistic tradition practiced by indigenous hunter-gatherers throughout history. Artists like Karen “yams up her ass” Finley and Chris “bullet in his arm” Burden were said to be creating new rituals for the healing and transformation of the global village. Curators and academics used the issue to begin dismantling the colonialist separation of Navajo rugs and Tibetan sand mandalas from contemporary Western art practices. Jungian scholars urged the reinterpretation of modern art as a sequence of journeys to the underworld guided by archetypal spirit helpers.
None of this thought-styling is as far-fetched as it seems — as far as anyone can tell, the oldest extant works of art were created as aspects of shamanistic practice. While famous for their aesthetic accomplishment, the cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira and the small, portable carvings of animals and fertility goddesses made by Paleolithic nomads were probably produced with functionality in mind — as magical tools meant to guarantee a good hunt or safeguard the delivery of a new generation of cavebabies. Tribal societies that have survived into the present day reinforce this reading: Much of what was taken to be pattern and decoration in indigenous arts and crafts has turned out to be elaborately encoded cosmologies, often with specific roles in the ritualistic induction of altered states of consciousness — shamanistic trance states. But the art world is very touchy about non-materialistic traditions, and by the early ’90s, the artist as shaman was last month’s flavor.
Which is why it’s surprising to suddenly see three different art events inextricably rooted in the shamanistic fad of the ’80s. “Show Your Wound: The Death and Times of Joseph Beuys” is a multimedia “stagewerk conceived, researched, compiled, written and directed” by Tom Patchett, the man behind Track 16 Gallery and Smart Art Press (and who is still best known as the auteur of the telewerk Alf). Beuys, a German, started as a sculptor but expanded his practice to include performances (he once spent a week in a gallery with a coyote), academic and political reform (he was one of 500 founding members of the Green Party), installations, and sound art, all of which were encompassed by his concept of “social sculpture.” A radio operator for the Luftwaffe in World War II, Beuys was shot down over the Crimea. He was found near death by a tribe of nomads, who, in order to preserve his body heat, wrapped him in fat and felt — materials that were repeated in most of Beuys’ subsequent artistic endeavors, many of which also made specific references to shamanism. Beuys’ overt spiritual bent eventually alienated many of his early supporters, who wanted him to stay within the confines of his role as political activist or Fluxus prankster.
Beuys died in 1986, a year after the passing of Jessie Oonark, an Inuit woman from Canada’s Northwest Territories (now Nunavut) whose print work is featured in “Power of Thought” at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History. Oonark had come to art after more than 50 years living the traditional nomadic life of her people, following the caribou across the vast central plains of the north, living in igloos — the whole Eskimo shebang. As dwindling wildlife and encroaching civilization forced more and more Inuit to abandon their traditional lifestyle, the Canadian government sought ways to provide them with a livelihood. One of the oddest but most successful of these was to introduce them to a variety of Western art-making techniques, notably printmaking and soapstone sculpture. An entire industry sprang up, with a large international collector base, and its own museums, galleries and art stars — of which Oonark was one.
The same basic scenario was played out in Australia in 1971, when an arts-and-crafts teacher named Geoff Bardon introduced the Aborigines of the Papuya settlement west of Alice Springs to acrylics. In a few short years, canvases covered with their traditional body decorations and sand-painting patterns were being exhibited and sold around the world, included in major museum exhibitions like the 1986 Sydney Biennale, and popping up everywhere from album covers to textile designs. “Outback and Way Ahead: Contemporary Aboriginal Paintings From Australia’s Central Desert” is at L.A. Art Exchange, a stone’s throw from Bergamot Station.
I decided that in order to immerse myself fully in this revived Zeitgeist, I would visit all three shows on the same day. I began at the Fowler. More than half of the prints in the exhibit derive from the last five years of Oonark’s life, when she was already an art star. They are lit in a dim, oblique light — possibly to simulate the twilight-consciousness state of trance. Oonark’s father was a shaman, but she converted to Christianity in the 1920s and was said to be interested in shamanistic images largely for their attractiveness as designs. Since the emergence of the Inuit art movement (and the Aboriginal artists), reservations have been expressed about the transposing of sacred pictorial traditions into modern Western media as commodities for rich people’s decorative needs, and the market imposition of a “star system” onto what is essentially a communal tradition.