Cantor Center for Visual Arts spotlights 'living tradition' of American Indian art

Courtesy Cantor Arts Center Mask Representing Thunderbird, by Art Thompson

Mask Representing Thunderbird, by Art Thompson

Courtesy Cantor Arts Center Mask, by Don Yeomans

Mask, by Don Yeomans

Courtesy Cantor Arts Center Chief’s Regalia (button blanket), by Maxine Matilpi

Chief’s Regalia (button blanket), by Maxine Matilpi

Courtesy Cantor Arts Center Pugwis Mask with Kingfisher, by Stan Hunt

Pugwis Mask with Kingfisher, by Stan Hunt

One way to make a great art museum is to spend vast sums buying landmark works from the past. Another way is to buy great works of art while the paint is still wet—or even to commission them.

The second route is rarer and riskier. John Livingston, one of the leading American Indian carvers of the Northwest, praised the Cantor Arts Center for taking the less-traveled path. Speaking at the May 9 gallery dedication for "Living Traditions: Arts of the Americas"—now an ongoing exhibition at the center—he praised Thomas Seligman, the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the center, for collecting indigenous art created by modern-day artists.

In the newly named Rehmus Family Gallery, which features American Indian art, the changes are dramatic. On entering the gallery, visitors face a massive threshold: an imposing set of 10-foot cedar posts, surmounted by a 14-foot lintel. The 7,000-pound work was created by American Indian carver Calvin Hunt of British Columbia.

The posts display Hunt's family emblems: an eagle, a raven and a bear holding a salmon. The crossbeam features Sisiutl, the double-headed serpent that symbolizes supernatural power and is one of the most high-ranking crests of the Kwakwaka'wakw people, an indigenous nation of British Columbia. The combination of crests is "mixed with beings and creatures embodying everything from the creation of the world to the balance of how everything works," according to Manuel Jordán Pérez, the Phyllis Wattis Curator for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.

Behind it, Livingston has created two massive "performing masks" of birds, carved out of cedar, used for feasts, celebrations and ceremonies, Jordán Pérez said. A 14-foot-wide painted canvas, also created by Hunt, provides a backdrop for the masks. Maxine Matilpi, also of the Kwakwaka'wakw nation in Canada, created the delicate, intricate work on the chieftain's ceremonial dress, including a button blanket, leggings and apron, and featuring a family motif of bears and butterflies.

Jordán Pérez estimates that 80 percent of the gallery's collection has not been on display before. Previously, only six of the center's large collection of 300 baskets have been available for viewing. Now 50 baskets from the daily life of the Yurok, Karuk, Hupa and other Western tribes will be rotated for exhibition, "to keep the gallery fresh," Jordán Pérez said.

The reinstallation, which includes commissioning new works (such as the cedar posts and bird masks), installing objects from the permanent collection that have never been exhibited before at the center and rewriting text that accompanies them to include commentary from Stanford students and artists to emphasize the "living tradition" theme, focuses the museum more intensely on its strengths: American Indian art from the Northwest Coast, California, Southwestern United States and West Mexico.

The museum will be developing a series of programs, including lectures and workshops for students and visitors, using the collection for demonstration and discussion. The programs will emphasize the basket and pottery collections.

The Livingston posts created a particular challenge for the revamped gallery: An engineering firm was consulted to distribute the weight of the structure, and cables anchor the lintel to keep the structure from tipping during earthquakes. "We have to apologize for history," Seligman told the crowd gathered at the dedication, noting the limits of the original structural plans. "Poles and lintel are testing the strength of the old building." Only 50 people are permitted to occupy the gallery at a time, the first occasion the center has had to impose such limits.

Also on display are 16 ceramic figures from Vera Cruz, Maya and West Mexican cultures. These images and receptacles for the dead, dating from 250 B.C. to A.D. 500, are a fraction of a promised gift to the center, loaned to enhance the collection of pre-Columbian items from West Mexico during the "Living Traditions" exhibition.

Fred Rehmus praised the "enormous significance" of the new gallery and the "enormous creative forces" in forming it.

He called Seligman's recognition of the significance of the American Indian art "astonishing" and lauded him for developing the collection "almost single-handedly." He also cited former university President Gerhard Casper, who insisted that "no great university can exist without a great art museum."

Rehmus also praised Livingston, who was "instrumental in trying to make this work" and "committed to the core to Northwestern art."

In his own remarks, Livingston said, "What the gallery is displaying is about a 30-year period of top Northwest carvers." These will be the foundation of a collection that will increase in importance with time. "Someday all these things will be old. I hope people will be coming here to study them," he added.

The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours Thursdays until 8 p.m. Admission is free.