An Indian philosopher once remarked that, while people in the West knew how to fly in the air like birds and swim in the sea like fish, they had not yet learned how to walk on the ground with their own two feet. The current exhibits at the Cleveland State University Art Gallery showcase both parts of this dichotomy. California artist Simone Gad's Body Beautiful Pin-Ups, street-smart photocollages of fast cars and naked bodies, come out of the culture that can swim and fly. The Contemporary Inuit exhibit of Eskimo drawings, sculptures, and prints, in which the canoe is the vehicle of choice and human sexuality is simply a given, emerges from the culture that walks solidly upon the ground. It's the Eskimo art that impresses here. Gad's collages are all urban hot air. In them, poverty of imagination masquerades as a frank and ultra-hip world view.
The Inuits who've created the art in this exhibition haven't done so out of need for self-expression. Modern notions of the artist as a journeyman in pursuit of originality aren't operative. Instead, as in all aspects of Eskimo life, these works are a collective venture, and the art has a clear function: to accurately portray village life and religious rituals. The members of a community (several Eskimo villages are represented here) pool their ideas, and then one person is entrusted with melding those ideas into the final product, whether it be a print, a painting, a drawing, or a sculpture. The effect is akin to that of a chamber orchestra which makes music without a conductor; matters of interpretation are worked out in advance, and each member of the ensemble can have a role in shaping the piece.
What one gets with these earthy yet deeply considered works is community consensus on the things that matter most to the villagers. That may sound like pretty basic stuff, but such self-effacement is rare in modern art, which often completely forgets its audience as artists grind axes and pursue pet peeves. Cleveland is fortunate that gallery director Robert Thurmer has brought this exhibit to town. It's a reminder that artists need not speak in tongues to get a point across.
There is, for example, nothing the least bit abstruse about the exhibit's many expert renditions of animals. Owls, foxes, birds, and caribou are drawn or sculpted simply, but every line is alive. A gentle humor characterizes the half-human, half-animal "caribou men." For laughs, though, nothing tops the woodcut/stencil "Conversing With the Snake Spirit," which shows an Eskimo addressing a snake with all the tenderness of a lover, eyes raptly focused on eyes, one hand gesticulating expressively, the other resting lightly under a scaly green chin.
Another dreamlike encounter between humans and animals is suggested by an untitled stone cut/stencil from Baker Lake, Quebec artist Ruth Anaqtuusi. In that piece, which also serves as a boldly colored evocation of village life, a man dressed in red looks like a sea creature from the waist down, with long legs that stretch across the frame diagonally in a manner an expert contortionist couldn't duplicate. In the upper left, suspended in space, is a villager shooting a bow and arrow. Elsewhere in the frame, a heavily dressed man straddles a woman's backside, suggesting that physicality is another way to face the cold. Both figures put together barely equal the length of the man's arm, and the spatial incongruities encourage the viewer to examine the scene on a symbolic level. But without knowledge of the symbols used by Baker Lake Eskimos, interpretation is risky. Better, perhaps, to relax and enjoy the color combinations that highlight this quietly dramatic montage of everyday life. Greens, oranges, and reds alternate rhythmically and lead the viewer's eye around the frame in a manner that reinforces the feeling of community solidarity.
Other works offer a similarly affecting view of home life and communal meals. Whole families are seen feasting on giant fish or fighting off sea creatures as though they were at play, and one gets the impression that nothing fazes these people. They seem comfortable with the dark side of nature, even as they revel in nature's bounties. Whether they are equally comfortable with the dark sides of their own nature is a question that is left unanswered by much of this art. The need to master external events might be so pressing that introspection sometimes gets short shrift.
Exceptions to the rule do exist. "Dream Image," by a Cape Dorset, Quebec artist named Ningeeuga, serves as a kind of visual key to the faces that have appeared in various villagers' dreams. By putting these faces together and integrating them through recurring rounded forms, order is sought and chaos is averted. One of the faces, a skull-like shape with large eyes, actually recalls the figure in Edvard Munch's famous nineteenth-century expressionist work, "The Scream." How such dissimilar artists came up with the same image is best left to a Jungian analyst or a cultural anthropologist. Maybe Ningeeuga is referring to the image or paying homage to it. Is the skull-shaped face with prominent eyes some kind of universal, transcultural image for inner distress? One wonders, and these Eskimo works are a great place to go in search of such archetypal images, for although Eskimo culture has certainly felt the technological influences of the twentieth century, much in these communities has remained unspoiled.
Take, for instance, the igloo. It's the focal point in "Our Snow House," a stone cut from Ningeeuga. Emerging from the snow house are a series of heads bearing antennae-like extensions; the antennae forms are then repeated at the base of the igloo, suggesting that the dwelling and the persons who inhabit it share the same characteristics. This is work in which every detail counts. It has an almost iconic feel--this is the hearth; this is what being an Eskimo is all about--reminiscent of the unassuming way that American filmmaker Robert Flaherty summed up the quiet strength of these people in his 1922 documentary film Nanook of the North. Several scenes in that classic, such as the one where Nanook the Eskimo fitted an ice window for his igloo, transported the viewer to a place where a whole culture seemed to glow. The same applies here.
If the Eskimo art is grounded in a belief that people are meant to cooperate with one another, Simone Gad's in-your-face photocollages are all about differentiation--though in truth, the only kind to be found is of the anatomical variety. Many modern artists like to assert--without breaking a sweat--that we live in a shallow society, where image is more important than substance. Gad is part of this contingent. She gives herself softball questions (Does this culture objectify women?) and then hits them out of the park. Her one twist is that she objectifies men also. She's an equal-opportunity objectifier.
Gad's art is a product of its time, but like the proverbial stick of Juicy Fruit, it loses its flavor fast once you chew it over. Like TV commercials, Gad's nude pin-ups are supposed to draw us into someone else's fantasy world, much like the current ad for a herpes medication that presents the product as though it were something as innocuous as shampoo. One wonders whether the producers want the audience to temporarily suspend disbelief or to actually view venereal disease as a chic accoutrement to modern living. Similarly, Gad's nudes are supposed to throw us off the scent, make us forget that the world she's showing us is rotten to the core, and force us to face our own voyeuristic tendencies and maybe even do something about them.
It doesn't work. Gad's work talks tough and uses four-letter words, but it's also tawdry and illiterate. Her painted abstract structures, for instance, are combined with found images, such as 1950s cars and pictures of naked men and women culled from skin mags. One photocollage is composed of three images--the Batmobile (minus Batman and Robin), a pin-up of a nude woman, and a pin-up of a woman in an Annie Oakley costume. For those keeping score at home, Gad might be saying the following: Annie Oakley is a symbol of feminine strength. The Batmobile stands in for male adolescent fantasies of omnipotence. The naked woman has no Oakley-style costume or accompanying firearm, and thus is just an object of male lust. The painted background suggests a house, and there is no telling what these people do behind closed doors. It's all very attention-getting. But what would you expect, when this part of the exhibit is introduced by a warning that it may not be suitable for minor children?
If civilization is synonymous with central heating and surfing the Net, the Eskimos come out poorly, and Simone Gad comes out well. If, on the other hand, civilization means mastery of life as opposed to mere mastery of the means of living, the Eskimos succeed where Gad fails. The Inuits forsake individual flights of fancy to produce a faithful mirror of their culture. That is success enough.
Contemporary Inuit and Body Beautiful Pin-Ups, through February 20 at the Cleveland State University Art Gallery, 2307 Chester Avenue, 216-687-2103.