| November 22, 201
Carl Beam, “The North American Iceberg” (1985), acrylic, photo-serigraph, and graphite on Plexiglas, 213.6 x 374.1 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. (all images courtesy the National Museum of the American Indian)
The Carl Beam retrospective now at the National Museum of the American Indian Heye Center in Lower Manhattan could be a response to the museum itself. Located in the imposing Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, a monolithic reminder that New York City was originally built on European immigration, the museum presents artifacts and art by North America’s first people. Beam’s work likewise was always aimed at juxtaposing the modern culture of North America, a transformation of the country that he marked with the arrival of Columbus, with the traditional imagery of the American Indians. Neither the museum nor the influential Canadian artist’s work offers much harmony between these two clashing worlds, but in the resulting collage of Beam’s work is an engaging sort of turbulence.
Before traveling to New York, the touring retrospective was first staged at the National Gallery of Canada, which bought Beam’s “The North American Iceberg” in 1986, the first acquisition of a contemporary work for its collection by a First Nations, which is what Canadian’s call Native Americans, artist. ”The North American Iceberg” is one of the first pieces I saw upon entering the exhibit, and it has all the elements that thread through the rest of the show. There are the depictions of First Nations people from the 19th century alongside photographs of space travel and a mugshot-like portrait of the artist himself. There are the stenciled proclamations and numbers measuring across and a rectangle bordered around everything, the only elements of strict order in the piece. There is the brutal application of paint that makes me think of different types of blood splatters, the colors taking on a charred and dirty color as they near the frame. It is a storm of thundering imagery battling for the viewer’s attention, the victor not at all clear. [READ MORE]