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Funny Business

Works in 'Indian Humor' Have a Serious Framework

June 27, 1996|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wise mystics, proud warriors, fierce savages, sad drunks. Cary Remeau has considered all the stock images of Native Americans.

But giggling cutups?

The Yorba Linda woman had to admit that she'd never conjured up that image. Not before she recently visited the Fullerton Museum Center's "Indian Humor" show.

"The movies and TV make them so solemn or tough; you don't think about them laughing or making jokes," said Remeau, 28. "I know it's stupid [to simplify Native Americans] that way, but it seems we do it."

The narrowness of common perceptions inspired the exhibit, which features work by 38 Native American artists. It includes ceramics, sculptures, paintings, drawings, computer-generated montages and other forms, many borrowing traditional Native American styles and most with either an ironic or straightforward jokiness about them.

Curator Sara Bates, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, said the traveling show is designed to be fun--and expansive when it comes to defining the dimensions of her culture.

"It shows a small piece of the diversity which exists among living Native American artists and communities," she said. It also "counters institutionalized historical misrepresentations of Indian life.

"In spite of the fact that 547 tribes exist in the United States today, [the culture] remains, for many, a monolithic entity frozen into a nostalgic, romantic past," she said.

One of the artists, Sharol Graves, a Shawnee from Oregon, created her geometrical, multicolored silk screens after becoming transfixed by the computer circuit boards she worked on as an engineer in Silicon Valley.

The pieces, which whimsically mix buffalo images with Indian symbols and the technological layouts of computers, should dismiss stereotypes about "the Indian mind," Graves said.

"Somehow, I wanted the public to know that a Native American was working in research and the development of high technology," she said. "In my family and educational experience, I have witnessed Native Americans to be a very creative, adaptive and humorous people."

Marcus Amerman, a Choctaw from Arizona, incorporates the craftsmanship of Indian bead and feather work into his more contemporary pieces. His "Iron Horse Jacket" features an image of Brooke Shields composed of hundreds of beads.

Another, "Medicine Man's Headpiece," is reminiscent of a ceremonial headdress until you look closely and see the metal plates that turn it into a decoration for, as Amerman puts it, "a modern techno-shaman."

In describing the pieces, Amerman said they represent "an amalgamation of traditional and contemporary healing philosophy and ritual aesthetic." After all that, Amerman allowed that he made the jacket "to have something to look cool in."

*

The casualness of that comment is reflected in several of the displays, including Jeffrey Chapman's simple watercolors. In one called "Chippewa Fast Food," the Chippewa from Minnesota depicts a paper bag shot full of holes, with deer antlers poking out the top.

"Ms. Coyote" by Jean Lamarr, a Paiute from California, is a mixed-media mask of a broad-smiling coyote with a delicate rose perched above the left ear. Mascara darkens the black lashes and lipstick seems to brighten the mouth.

The folk-oriented sculpture, Lamarr explained, "is a response to Native American narratives of Coyote, the trickster, who is generally portrayed as a male persona, forever seeking to satisfy his curiosities and sexual appetite."

Remeau stood before it and laughed quietly. She couldn't really explain her reaction, saying only that "it tickles something in me."

But Remeau was more expansive when asked to interpret the meaning of the exhibit.

"I don't always see humor in all the art, but I do see a lot of differences in style and approach," she said. "To me, this says something about how Indians are expressing themselves in ways we may not know about."

Her friend Ed Mears, 36, of Buena Park, said he is part Apache on his mother's side and that the show made him proud.

"The funny [nature of the] exhibit is really secondary to me," he said.

"What I get is how good everything is. It tells you that we just don't drink [and] open up bingo places. We can be very creative."

* What: "Indian Humor" exhibition.

* When: Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays noon-4 p.m.; Thursdays noon-8 p.m. Through Aug. 11.

* Where: Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave.

* Whereabouts: Take the Orange (57) Freeway to Chapman Avenue/Fullerton exit. Go west and turn left onto Pomona Avenue (one block before Harbor Boulevard).

* Wherewithal: $2-$3. Free for children under 12. Free for everybody on Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m.

* Where to call: (714) 738-6545.

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