"Voice" (which runs through Feb. 3, 2008) marks the curatorial debut of Ben Mitchell, who joined the MAC last August as its curator of art. With exhibitions booked months, even years in advance and requiring a budget commensurate with the quality of work being exhibited, Mitchell had precious little of either with which to develop an exhibition in keeping with the MAC's mission: to showcase the arts and culture of the Inland Northwest. While it's debatable how the current installation of Sue the T. rex fulfills that agenda, its blockbuster status nonetheless guarantees visibility to such exhibits as "Voice," Gaylen Hansen's painting retrospective and even future art exhibitions, like the Nathan Orosco exhibit (which opens July 6). And although "The Voice of Things" is a collaborative show, it bears Mitchell's unmistakable imprint: a penchant for storytelling, meticulous presentation and documentation, and a thoughtful meditation on several broad themes that appear simple but which turn out to be delightfully dense and meaty.
Stories are implicit, for example, in some of the items from the American Indian collection, like the massive Kwakiutl drum fashioned from a ship's boiler or the Chilkat robe hanging above it, which in times past "told the history of the clans," writes Michael Holloman, director of the museum's Center for Plateau Cultural Studies. The robe's totemic symbolism equates to the illustrative photo: They both tell stories.
"Bound up in material culture and archival materials are human stories," says history curator Marsha Rooney. She terms those stories "primary sources for research, and artistic responses to the environment and human experience." The carvings of Amos McKee, for example, convey pioneer spirit and the transition from rural to urban America. From his 1890s arrival in the Northwest until his 1950s retirement, McKee carved figurines using his skills as farmer, blacksmith and stagecoach operator. Unable to draw or write well, he told his story through objects.
Objects tell the story of the Bolches, a middle-class Spokane family whose collection represents the so-called American Dream of suburbia, individualism and wealth. The flipside to prosperity shown in the dresses, children's toys and nostalgic encapsulations of Bolch family life is consumerist hunger fueled both by the media and by the availability of cheap mass-produced items. Now compare the Bolches' possessions to those of the Potlatch culture -- rooted in the land, shared wealth, and handmade items whose providence was integral.
The story begun by McKee and Bolch of youthfulness and urban promise is completed in the collection of objects recreated by Ed Kienholz and Nancy Redden Kienholz from what appeared to be a shrine and cache of items in Spokane's soon-to-be demolished Pedicord and Young hotels. The Kienholzes' "The Jesus Corner" delineates the downward arc to urban disparity and disenfranchisement as part of the Spokane Series of Kienholz tableaus, which are characteristically critical of American culture.
Like many objects in "Voice," "The Jesus Corner" contains stories within stories: the objects themselves, their users and their makers. An Eastern Washington farm boy who saw himself as "being separate and apart," Kienholz had an outsider perspective that sent him further afield to achieve national and international acclaim. Yet he continued to live in Hope, Idaho, receiving -- ironically -- minimal local recognition.
Alongside "The Jesus Corner" are Spokane fire insurance maps, one laid open to where the Pedicord used to be. Hand-pasted updates to the 1950s graphically indicate transformations of streets and buildings -- like the Pedicord, which was consumed by fire shortly after the Kienholzes excavated its contents.
The landscape central to the shrine in "The Jesus Corner" is a wretched example of mass production that contrasts superbly with the 13 landscapes chosen by curator Mitchell. (It's a loaded number, inspired by Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.") The series tells the story of the land, like moving-picture cels spliced together, from one extreme to the other: from the 1870s romance of George Inness to an unprincipled study of Gem, Idaho's mining and timber town to Kathleen Gemberling Adkison's modern "Schweitzer Basin" to Lanny deVuono's contemporary, unframed "American Short Stories" series.
Initially, Mitchell's choice of landscape paintings -- versus more object-oriented works like the Kienholz installation -- might seem like a non sequitur. But "Voice" challenges viewers to shift their mental paradigms. A painting, for example, is both an object -- framed, commodified -- and an anti-object: It will always be representative of something else.
Further, landscape paintings are windows into something larger, just as the exhibition presents a framework through which to consider objects in a larger context -- and just as a museum is a window on past, present and future simultaneously, a place where stories are recounted, reinvented and transformed.
"The Voice of Things: The Museum's Collections," opened Saturday, June 23, and continues through Jan. 6, 2008, at the Northwest Museum of Arts & amp; Culture, 2316 W. First Ave. Hours: Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 am-5 pm. Tickets: $7; $5, seniors and students; free, children 5 and younger. Visit www.northwestmuseum.org or call 456-3931.