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Monday, December 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Overcast with Haze
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Chazen Museum's Changing Hands displays modern takes on Native American traditions
Changing Hands: Visual inventiveness meets technical skill.
Credit:Chazen Museum of Art

The latest exhibition at the Chazen Museum latest exhibition is a mammoth one, with an equally mammoth title: Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 3, Contemporary Native Art from the Northeast and Southeast. The traveling show organized by New York's Museum of Arts and Design runs through April 27.

That long, dry title is ultimately a little misleading; there are several artists from the Upper Midwest, including two Madisonians -- but that's no matter. Changing Hands is a terrific exhibition that showcases the work of 84 Native American artists in a wide variety of mediums. It's compelling viewing for anyone with an interest in contemporary art, Native cultures, or just sheer visual inventiveness.

Many of the artists featured in Changing Hands mesh interesting conceptual takes on Native American history and culture with a high degree of technical skill. One of the first pieces to catch my eye was Joel Queen's oversized ceramic vessel Quails. Monochromatic black with grooved, geometric designs, Quails possesses a kind of clarity that is instantly appealing. (Fun side note: It comes from the collection of fashion designer Tom Ford).

Some works explicitly play with blending time-honored cultural traditions with our current digital, hyper-connected world. Canadian artist Barry Ace combines beadwork from his Anishinaabek heritage with computer cables, small digital screens and other electronic flotsam in works like Bandolier, a play on a traditional bandolier bag. Fellow Canadian KC Adams examines similar themes with beaded iPhone and iPad cases.

Virginia artist Faye Lone takes aim at the art world's pigeonholing of Native artists in Constructed Indian, her quilted response to a curator who told the artist that she wanted to see more "modern" work from her. Lone's quilt literally pieces together stereotypical images and phrases. Stepping back, one can see the quilt is in the shape of the prototypical "Indian head," an effect highlighted even more by the shadow it throws on the wall.

While there are some weak pieces -- no surprise in a show of this size and range -- there are plenty of delights. Changing Hands is heavy on three-dimensional mediums like ceramics, sculpture, metalwork and furniture, but the exhibition also includes photography, video and painting.

Other highlights include Wanesia Misquadace's exquisite containers of birchbark and mixed metalwork and Cody E. Harjo's mixed-media piece Kotcha Faces Climate Change, which is another timely riff on the bandolier bag form. Harjo, an Oklahoma-born artist now living in Brooklyn, uses a character named Kotcha (the Muscogee word for "cat") as a kind of alter ego. This urban cat paces the streets of New York City, coping with an ever-hotter planet amidst iconic skyscrapers. While the colors and geometry are bright and jazzy, Harjo's work carries a social message.

Many of the artists in this show are young (for example, Harjo is in her early 30s), so it's nice to see early-career artists shown alongside more seasoned ones. While more stringent curating could have shed a few disappointing works, Changing Hands remains dynamic and highly enjoyable.

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