As has been reported in the Hot Sheet, some of the top sellers at this year’s SOFA Chicago were collaborative works that paired Tammy Garcia and Preston Singletary—a dialogue, let’s call it, between a ceramicist and glass maker. Both artists are of Native American descent and inspired by tribal forms and motifs: from Pueblo traditions, in the case of Garcia, and Tlingit in the case of Singletary. Their most recent “Visions in Glass III” series is firmly rooted in these traditions, seemingly distanced from contemporary art forms and themes. The use of blown glass, however, a technique and material perfected in Europe, is a decidedly untraditional twist, although if one looks at the historic relationship between Native American tribal art and European materials and technology, it can be seen as only the latest in a long history of technological exchange through art.
Though encounters between Native American people and the European newcomers were usually fraught and often-disastrous, a more nuanced relationship quickly developed between the cultures in the realm of visual arts, which developed practically upon first contact. Native American artists starting using European glass seed beads in their beadwork as early as the 16th century, adding this decidedly non-organic medium to their repertoire of bone, shell, and stone. Perhaps we can see Garcia and Singletary as referencing this history of interaction by the very collaborative nature of their process, as well as in material. The use of European chemical dyes, for example, helped to fuel bold new designs for woven textiles, which were eagerly purchased by European buyers, and we can see this fascination with the exotic qualities of tribal art continuing in the strong demand for Garcia and Singletary’s work.
There is a certain irony, however, to the pair’s using glass, to produce their forms. And that, if nothing else, makes the Garcia/Singletary work contemporary: it deals with issues of identity in a way that isn’t immediately perceptible. For a contrast, one might compare the Visions in Glass series with Marcus Amerman’s glass mask pictured above, which is included in a new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art. Taking the form of a horse’s head, the mask is abstract in a way that more obviously cites modernism, with its crisp lines and patches of highly saturated color. For Garcia and Singletary, the use of glass is a subtle yet powerful bid that positions their work firmly in a contemporary setting even as it references traditional iconography and designs.
This seems to be Singletary’s year. In addition to the success at SOFA, a mid-career survey showcasing his virtuosic forms opened last summer at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. This rise is hardly unexpected; Singletary was one of four significant contemporary Native American artists examined in the Summer 2004 issue of the print edition of GLASS: The UrbanGlass Art Quarterly, in a feature called “Vision Quest,” by Matthew Kangas. In the article, Kangas wrote, “Singletary has done the least to relate his art to any other contemporary art attitudes. Perhaps that is part of his appeal.” To put a finer point on it, perhaps Singletary’s appeal is that the connection between his art and contemporary art attitudes is complicated.
–Analisa Coats Bacall