Jane Ash Poitras

Leo Kamen Gallery

Many of Jane Ash Poitras’ paintings are detailed homages to traditional First Nations leaders: Poundmaker, Short Bull Tatanka Ptecila, Isapo Mukito Crowfoot. For Poitras history is not static but vital. She takes the power away from forces of destruction by focusing on the genealogies and contemporary lives of her own people. In Generations Late (all works 1994), for example, Black Elk and his descendants share the frame with “Chris” Columbus as though the latter were a casual afterthought, just another relative. Yet the 1930 picture of Black Elk and his son has a much more colonial inflection: it was taken in Germany, in the “Wild Bill West” show. In Poundmaker I Dance for You, the photographs acknowledged that Native culture has long survived in interactions with Europeans, that is, that such interactions are not always annihilating and sometimes productive.

Young people—anonymous faces from archival photographs and Poitras’ own children—populate her canvases. In Eyes of Shamans, an archival photograph of three dark-eyed children, one gently draping his arm around another, gazes from one side of the canvas. This painting balances a contemporary photo of three kids with sweet, goofy grins and stringy hair, sitting on a couch. Below these children a phalanx of wide-mouthed shamanistic figures in shouting colors—turquoise, red, lime green—stand against a mountainous backdrop. Two bird skeletons rendered exquisitely in chalky white occupy the painting’s top panel, painted a matte charcoal gray. The shamans seem to be offering protection to the newest generation of First Nations children, while the delicate skeletons hint at the fragility of these lives.

While much of Poitras’ previous work seemed to flirt with chaos, these paintings are carefully structured, their collage elements isolated and contained. Many are organized in three horizontal bands as if to mark the tensions and overlaps between different worlds. In Navajo Comic Adobe, for example, the middle of the painting depicts a conquered landscape in ochre with stick figures of mounted priests and armed men. Above them a painterly adobe village is slapped onto a page of comics whose colorful figures appear in the windows and doors, alongside a photograph of a sad-eyed young man. The lowest band, as in most of these works, is abstract. These contrasting pictorial elements, grounded in an awareness of recent history, recreate the tension between the forces of cultural destruction and those of renewal.

Wiry linear patterns that suggest blanket designs surround Poitras’ photographs like force fields. These ziggurats, spirals, and concentric diamonds draw on both traditional Native patterns and Modernist abstraction, uniting the distinct spiritual forces that underlie each tradition. Cy Twombly–esque pentimenti of equations and molecular diagrams are scattered in the fringes of the canvases. Albert Indianstein—Einstein looking improbable in a feathered bonnet—represents another of the elders, the sources of wisdom that Poitras has gathered around herself. The equations, especially Poitras’ variations on the equation relating mass and energy, seem like spirit figures, different from the shaman figures but possessing a similarly whimsical inexorability.

Laura U. Marks