by Jen Graves
on Fri, May 1, 2009 at 9:49 AM
If you look at the current exhibitions of American art at Seattle Art Museum in terms of American governance, then Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery—of which much fuss (and bunting) has been made—is sort of an executive branch in need of a few checks and balances. The Yale show is about mythmaking, about the greatness of rebels and patriots, and it contains precious few nods to the hypocritical underpinnings of the society they were so proudly creating (slavery, the wiping out of native cultures, and voting only for the few).
The checks and balances come in the form of other shows: Titus Kaphar's (podcast with the artist here) and this little show, organized by the National Gallery and SAM, hiding quietly in the bowels of the museum's third floor.
George de Forest Brush's Indian Hunter (1890), oil on canvas, 13 by 9 3/8 inches
De Forest Brush's Indian paintings are, as a Washington Post critic wrote last year when the show opened at the National Gallery, "slightly preposterous." They are also slightly offensive in their abstraction, in their turning away from the real subjects de Forest Brush found—Indians living in squalor or imprisoned.
De Forest Brush's Indians are romantic figures, figures for art, symbols, not people. And he only painted them for less than a decade, after which he fled all this depressing material and disembarked from the American experiment altogether (not to mention the modern experiment, which he never even acknowledged) for the ancient dreams of Florence, which provided him idyllic scenes for the rest of his days.
But in some ways, de Forest Brush did bear witness to the last years of Indian resistance to white aggression in the United States. He preferred to steer far clear of the complications of what he was doing, but we don't have to as we're looking. These paintings feel preposterous but provocative.