The five-foot-tall, saturated colored-pencil drawings on the back wall at Crawl Space are arresting. In glowing, electric-gem colors—the kind you see in photographs of Tokyo—they depict every last element of tourist kitsch pertaining to Native Americans: eagles flying over mountains, a stand of teepees, a howling wolf perched over a night view of Interstate 5 and the silhouetted Seattle skyline, flitting butterflies, feathers, a laughing baby, sparkling galaxies, mandalas, a blue-eyed buffalo, a big-haired and beautiful woman's face appearing on the surface of the moon, a man wearing a wolf pelt as a hood. (In fact, all of that is in a single one of the drawings.)
This is not a joke.
The artist's name is Dorian Dyer, and these works, selected for the group show Call and Response curated by the artist Jeffry Mitchell, were executed with evident care. Their appeal is not inconsequential. In fact, they are sympathetic evidence of a deeply felt spiritual quest. Sure, Dyer's vision of nativist utopia can be seen as problematic in a hundred different ways, and probably provides to a certain segment of the population more ironic material than a suburban thrift store, but so what? There's something more here, too: a feeling of dissatisfaction, a longing for the synthesis between ancient and modern, a desire for (let's say) a dream catcher to actually mean something that maybe it doesn't quite mean to him yet. This unfaked new spirituality is exactly what Mitchell's own work, delighting in messiness, has always been about. It has to do with re-forming the discarded, rechristening empty forms by just believing in them again, in the process restarting the soul itself. Can it work? Or do we just end up with a bunch of new old crap with feathers?
In Lewis Hyde's book The Gift, he describes art as a gift, and a gift as something better understood by precapitalist societies. "The Indian giver (or the original one, at any rate) understood a cardinal property of the gift: whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept... The only essential is this: the gift must always move."
Hoarding is death for a gift. The question is how to keep art moving in addition to or beyond or in spite of its purchase. A few futures are proposed in the Crawl Space show. Dyer's works (displayed with poems) are paired with paint-and-wax collages with feathers by Jamey Braden. Braden's pieces are small, lovable, concentrated amulets of anxious humor with titles like Horses Are Birds if That Is Going to Help You Out (Yes It Will). Braden's neofeathers approach is the opposite of Dyer's: She ridicules her (no less real) wish to be sheltered in old forms.
Paradoxically, Dyer sees his works as so precious that he puts a $21,000 price tag on each of them. This quick translation of native spirituality into a pile of money is a betrayal of the gift culture both of art and of tribal living, but there's another paradox, too—the high price keeps the works from being purchased! Meanwhile, Braden is refusing to sell any of her four works in the show because she cannot part with them. It's a sign of the purity of her intentions in making the works, which really are functioning as amulets for her in some way. But it also amounts to hoarding.
But influence is another form of sharing, and Call and Response is a tight universe of warmly shared concerns, a little utopia of its own despite marked differences between the paintings, collages, staged photographs, performance, and installed sculptures. On opening night, Gretchen Bennett and 11-year-old Joshua Lindenmayer made a performance of applying temporary tattoos to order on guests. Some of their sketches remain on the wall, and you can almost hear them calling out to Matt Cox's white pedestals with nothing on them, one leaning on the wall slightly and the other floating a slender quarter of an inch above the ground. Sol Hashemi's ingenious transformation of the banal into the cosmic—photographs of upside-down stacks of stools, their white seats like atoms or planets, their round white feet like orbiting matter—is in a tug-of-war with Jack Ryan's ingenious transformation of the cosmic into the banal. Ryan's photograph of the moon encircled by a white neon tube turns the moon into sleek home decor.
At the Helm Gallery in Tacoma, another show of a group of artists—Gretchen Bennett, Jenny Heishman, Heide Hinrichs, and Matthew Offenbacher, working so closely together, even sharing materials, that they are loath to call theirs a group show—leans on ancient bedrock. This time, though, ideas of nativeness are called upon in the generational sense, to represent every past from which the artists are alienated and with which they long to reunite in order to move forward into a new (possibly impossible) independence. "We are the second peoples. We inhabit a landscape of iteration, reverb, elision, and generational noise," their statement reads. Second Peoples, the title of the show, refers to the universal dilemma of "being born into a world that already exists," as artist Corin Hewitt put it to me recently. (Hewitt has an exquisitely tender show of photographs at Seattle Art Museum now.)
Blowing past referentiality into a new future integrated with the past—this is what David Foster Wallace meant when he urged his generation to drive beyond ultimately despair-inducing irony. The idea is to do more than appropriate, to use but not use up, to keep the gift moving. Offenbacher plays a piece of carpet padding against an abstract painting. The padding hangs on the wall, like a piece of art; the painting sits on the floor, like a scrap of something. They share the same color scheme and mosaic appearance, which pleasantly undermines them both. While the abstract painting comes down to earth, the mass-produced padding seems to achieve the spiritual: They laugh at (and with) each other. (Bonus: The colors in the painting seem to hover on the surface because Offenbacher's canvas is not canvas but fabric treated with Stainguard—i.e., the painting treats its own paint like a stain it doesn't want.) Across the room, Heishman sets a piece of tinfoil on fire by decorating it with mirrored stickers and hanging it perpendicular to a piece of fabric the blazing colors of a sunset. Maybe the best evidence of an updated sublime is the undying desire for it. At the very least, artists are banding together to work on this knot of riddles for you.