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Wendy Red Star on the Rise

The Crow artist takes on heavy topics with humor and cutting commentary.

Wendy Red Star's self-portrait series “Four Seasons” places the artist at the center of dioramas depicting spring, summer, fall and winter (above), all of which juxtapose stereotypical Native American imagery with elements of authenticity.

Wendy Red Star's self-portrait series “Four Seasons” places the artist at the center of dioramas depicting spring, summer, fall and winter (above), all of which juxtapose stereotypical Native American imagery with elements of authenticity.

Image courtesy of the artist

Colonialism, stereotypes and ignorance. Native Americans generally identify each as tools of oppression, but for multimedia artist Wendy Red Star (Crow), they’re an unlikely source of inspiration.

They’re also conversations starters in her art, where HUD homes and family photographs are mixed with highly saturated colors and other clear references to her Crow culture (see more at www.wendyredstar.com). “It’s important for me that people enjoy my art on some level,” Red Star says. “I want to create something that is tantalizing for them to be able to pull them in that way.”

Clearly, the Portland, Oregon-based artist’s edgy approach is working. She was the curator of an exhibit featuring 10 other Native artists at the Seattle arts and music festival Bumbershoot over the summer; she opened a solo show at the Portland Art Museum in September; and now a self-portrait series of hers is part of the exhibit “The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky.” The show is currently at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City after an opening in Paris earlier this year and ahead of a final stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Red Star, the niece of famed Crow painter Kevin Red Star, grew up in Lodge Grass, Montana, on the Crow reservation and went to graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles. It goes without saying she’s established an approach, career path and artistic voice that are all her own. “I want to pull (people) in with aesthetics first and with more knowledge they can find more meaning,” Red Star says.

In the photo series “Four Seasons” that is part of the current Plains exhibit, Red Star wears a traditional Crow elk-tooth dress as she poses at the center of highly stylized dioramas conveying scenes of winter, spring, summer and fall. The elk-tooth dress, an iconic image of Crow culture made of wool, is adorned with hundreds of reproduced elk teeth. Traditionally, the teeth were a symbol of wealth, as only two can be harvested from a single elk.

But the series carries an avant-garde quality characteristic of Red Star’s work, with stereotypical Native American imagery juxtaposed against authentic imagery. “The look pulls people in, but as you look closer you can see the image deteriorate, and if you are more privy to Native history you can see it right away,” Red Star says.

The beautiful look reflective of the commonly accepted narrative of what Native Americans look like attracts onlookers, but upon further inspection, the viewer can see tacks holding up the background, many of the animals are inflatable toys, and cellophane used to evoke the reflective quality of water.

“I’m dealing with really heavy topics pertaining to Crow and Native culture and the colonization of people,” Red Star says. “You can be very heavy handed about it, but people don’t want to be around that. You can find an in by using humor. Humor or wit can be very healing, by getting viewers to crack a smile or laugh I can get them in, that way they can investigate my work further.”