Sure, skin is a metaphor. It represents, at opposite ends, oppression and privilege. But it’s also a metaphor that’s written all over your face. In HIDE: Skin as Material and Metaphor, eight artists explore skin to varying results.
Considering the highly loaded title, the works seem unnecessarily restrained. Perhaps that’s because the exhibition comes to us from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, whose fare seems tamer than Museum of Contemporary Native Arts’—including the kinetic works of BFA students showing simultaneously.
MoCNA has tackled this concept much more compellingly before and with much less pretense.
Across multiple museum walls, Sonya Kelliher-Combs uses more skin than a New Mexico taxidermist could identify—reindeer, sea lion, moose, polar bear, seal—in addition to skin-suggestive materials such as innards, porcupine quills and human hair.
Approximately 50 nylon-stitched, glass-beaded walrus-stomach pouches compose “Small Secrets,” appearing like ancient, dirty miniature condoms standing at attention. Her series of Walrus Family Portraits frequently echoes the pouch motif on various iridescent planes. The Brand series sees the sundry skin stretched onto box canvases and then punctuated by metal eyelets. Kelliher-Combs’ works practice silent subversion: The slightly racy abundance of skin undermines the obvious racial implications of the medium. One is a little disappointed, however, at how quiet her works are; some messages need more than volume of material.
KC Adams’ Hybrid Cyborg series goes the longest way to punch up the staid exhibition. Risible glamour shots depict people of mixed ancestry wearing identical Native-looking necklaces, white boas and white T-shirts. Each shirt offers a different slogan: “I Survived Colonization,” “City Indian,” “Alcoholic,” “Adopted Out” and, the perennial favorite, “My Grandmother Was Cherokee.”
The pieces incorporate common, subversive Native refrains, and then simultaneously reappropriate and unhinge them. The pieces’ airbrushed quality and the subjects’ self-conscious posturing smartly equivocate irony and sincerity.
This is not the case for The Scar Project, an ongoing endeavor in which workshoppers represent their scars—physical, emotional, physiological, etc.—using thread and gashes.
Many of the approximately 135, white 10-inch box canvases, presented together in linear clusters, depict physical scars. Some are more creative; for instance: a map centered on Mexico with text that translates from Spanish as “I arrive with three scars: from love, from death and from life.” Many are indicative of what you’d expect from a crowd-sourced art project of maudlin nature: the twin towers, hearts. The metaphors here are blatant: The canvas is skin; the scars are, well, types of “scars.”
The works in HIDE: Skin As Material and Metaphor range from obvious to understated, but mostly tend to bruise under the title’s implications. The exhibition relies heavily on a powerful concept while ceding the legwork to really back it up.
Skip across the Plaza to a simultaneous art opening at Eggman & Walrus and to a series similar placement-wise to The Scar Project. Thomas Christopher Haag’s Stolen Paint features white-backed works congregated linearly—but which aren’t buried under their own conceit.
Stolen Paint uses ground score—found or junk materials—to create intricate, highly wrought paintings. Over a plaid patchwork of collaged text and old house paint, Haag casts black-outlined figures. The characters pull from a number of artistic traditions—Egyptian posturing, Hindi symbolism—for spiritually wishy-washy but visually satisfying works.
The pieces are energetic and full of mental and visual depth—but, fortunately, they only have to hang under the banner of ground score.