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
In spite of these qualifications, the show is powerful on a number of levels — Oonark was a brilliant graphic artist by any standards, and she deserves to be considered alongside the Western masters her work most strongly resembles — Paul Klee, for example, or Dubuffet, or Kenneth Patchen, all of whom peopled their two-dimensional worlds with entities of a distinctly otherworldly aura. Like those artists, Oonark suffused her work with humor, drama and compassion. Regardless of whether she completely abandoned the shamanic tradition — I personally suspect that, as throughout the history of Christianity, local Inuit mythologies were absorbed with a light patina of benevolent monotheistic authority — those are the kinds of healing properties that transcend any cultural boundaries.
Next stop was a pre-opening viewing of “Outback and Way Ahead,” installed salon style in the back of a framing shop, again with the dim lighting. Most of what I said about Oonark holds here, except that this is a group show of artists who are working today, and the Western parallels would tend to the more abstract — Mark Tobey, Richard Poussette-Dart and Lee Mullican, let’s say. A majority of the pieces are in the familiar spiritual landscape made up of vibrant earth-tone dots. Some of the strongest works are by elderly artists, such as Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, who was one of the first to work on canvas in the ’70s. William Sandy’s work is a particular standout, with optically disorienting fields of pattern that hum with presence. The prices seem ridiculously low, and the gallery that organized the event is mandated to return the profits to the artists’ communities — a laudable and too-rare arrangement.
As the place began to swell with beautiful people, I had to run to catch the Beuys show at Bergamot. The audience there was kept in the wings, however, by several galleries’ worth of Beuys’ performance ephemera and multiples. When we were finally seated, we were treated to a peculiar hybrid of a theater experience. Rather than mimicking the strategies employed by Beuys in his performances, the stagewerk was essentially an amateur theater production with fairly elaborate digital video projections combining archival footage, still photos and cheesy effects. Which works fine, as the idea seems to be to present a primer of Beuys’ oeuvre along with a riposte to the American art world’s lingering dismissal of his legacy, both of which are accomplished with economy and insight, mostly in the non-theatrical portions. One high point is a video appearance by in-recovery Alf writer Jerry Stahl as a crabby, incoherent Benjamin Buchloh, condemning Beuys’ Guggenheim retrospective — largely on the basis of its dim lighting — and casting doubt on Beuys’ shamanistic claims.
To those who doubt the powerful synchronous impact of these multiple shamanistic experiences, when I finally got home, I plopped in front of the tube and turned on Comedy Central. There, in a dimly lit Peruvian hut, under the supervision of a medicine man, was Travel Sick host Grub Smith, ingesting the sacred Amazon brew ayahuasca. Sporting diapers and cracking wise about seeing the face of God, Smith was the picture of the colonialist frat boy. He actually attempted to do a painting, but only made a few scrawls (curiously resembling one of Beuys’ animal sketches) before the yage kicked in and left him cowering in a corner away from the camera. We Westerners sure think we’re hot shit — glibly absorbing Peruvian shamanism into our telewerks, then moving on to our next purchase. In fact, many of the well-meaning objections to the hybridization of indigenous shamanistic traditions are grounded in the same hubris. What exactly leads us to believe that our stretched canvases and white cubes possess such powerful mojo as to wipe out 40,000 years of refined and focused art practice? Give these people some credit; they’re in for the long haul.
POWER OF THOUGHT: The Art of Jessie Oonark at UCLA FOWLER MUSEUM OF CULTURAL HISTORY, Sunset Boulevard at Westwood Boulevard | Through May 30
OUTBACK AND WAY AHEAD: Contemporary Aboriginal Paintings From Australia’s Central Desert | At L.A. ART EXCHANGE, 2451 Broadway, Santa Monica | Through April 3
SHOW YOUR WOUND: The Death and Times of Joseph Beuys | At TRACK 16, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 7:45 p.m. | Through April 10