Putting Together the Puzzles of Abstract Northwest Native Art

​Review of Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse at Seattle Art Museum by Emma Lee

In case you hadn’t guessed from the title, Robert Davidson’s current exhibition, Abstract Impulse, at the Seattle Art Museum is, well, abstract. And it’s apparently impulsive in its confusion of titles, captions, loud colors, and shapeless forms. I walked out of the exhibition baffled.

Robert Davidson began the Northwest Coast Native art revival in 1969, when he created the first totem pole to stand in his ancestral village, Masset, since the 1880s. He has studied the artistic style of his tribe, the Haida, for years, and the exhibit holds a collection of 45 sculptures, prints, jewelry, and paintings by the artist, all based on the traditions of Northwest Native art.

But the elements of Davidson’s work that veered away from those of traditional Native art were disorienting. The paint colors — olive green on bright orange, primary colors covering the background — were jarringly contrasted, and trying to pick out the animal forms suggested by the titles was like trying to put together a puzzle missing half the pieces and without a picture to guide you.

Sometimes piecing things together was fun. Of the “Sea Anemone” painting, I could only make out a giant open mouth, but that was the perfect image for the squishy creatures that spray saltwater when poked. Sometimes it was frustrating, though, and I’m still perplexed about why I saw so many fish tails in paintings with titles like “Fast Bird” and “Oyster Catcher.”

A cool video of Robert Davidson telling his story helped fill in some blanks on thie type of art and its elements, and I enjoyed learning some of the Haida stories from the artwork blurbs. But whenever I got close enough to read, I couldn’t decide whether the feeling of being followed came from the museum guides watching me take notes on my phone (it’s a no-photography exhibit) or from the giant staring eyes of the creatures surrounding me.

Davidson’s sculptures were so beautiful that I desperately wanted to touch the wood where it merged seamlessly from one plane to another, the grain polished smooth over furrows angled deep into the wood. The jewelry pieces, with contemplatively zen names about hugging the world, peace, and happiness, were also lovely.

Abstract Impulse is a relatively small exhibit, so it probably won’t take long for you to be as muddled as I was. But if you have time to linger over the abstract works — for example, the near-pure black canvas of “Supernatural Fin,” or the quasi-totem pole “Southeast Wind” — you may find your own meanings in the pieces.

Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse
Seattle Art Museum
Through February 16, 2014

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