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Tainted Shamans

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.

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