Image: Vanessa Jennings (Kiowa), Tipi, 1990, leather, wood, pigment
Although the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City houses an extensive collection of Native American art, it’s best known as an old-school cowboy institution where serious collectors soirée among romantic interpretations of American grit. Works by some of the West’s most famous artists like Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington line the galleries, but despite the grandeur preceding it, American Indian Artists: 20th Century Masters still stops you in your tracks.
Framed in the entry doorway, a small tipi by Kiowa artist Vanessa Jennings heralds the exhibit, which contains dozens of paintings, drawings, lithographs, weavings, and sculptures set against the room’s brilliant turquoise walls. The artists highlighted here include the famed Kiowa Six artists who studied at the University of Oklahoma in the early twentieth century, others from the Santa Fe Studio and Bacone College in Muskogee, and post-1960s artists, some of whose techniques veer toward pop art.
One of the most jolting works is Frank Big Bear Jr.’s acrylic and colored pencil Western Front #7, in which men on horseback ride head-on from an electric neon backdrop of plains and sky. In an acrylic painting by Robert Taylor, a skeleton body with a warrior’s head stares at the viewer, bony arms outstretched. Vivid paintings by T.C. Cannon and Kevin Red Star also stand out.
Overall, this bright, modern exhibit is a visual survey course in all the mediums and styles that contemporary Native American art can encompass.
Megan Rossman is a 2018-2019 Oklahoma Art Writing & Curatorial Fellow.