Joe Feddersen: Vital Signs

June 3 2008 - September 27 2008

This exhibition explores Feddersen's interest in the interrelationships of urban place markers and indigenous landscapes through powerful combinations of contemporary media and native iconography. The exhibition features a selection of extraordinary works in prints, glass, and weaving all created since 2000. The exhibition is organized by the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, Oregon, and curated by Rebecca J. Dobkins. It is accompanied by a major new volume in the Jacob Lawrence Series on American Art and Artists and co-published with the University of Washington Press. In addition to Dobkins's biographical essay, the full-color book includes essays by artists Gail Tremblay and Barbara Thomas.

The powerful work of Joe Feddersen reveals, like vital signs themselves, the state of the human condition from the vantage point of a contemporary artist who has inherited an ancient aesthetic tradition. Arising from Plateau Indian iconographic interpretations of the human-environment relationship, Feddersen's prints, weavings, and glass sculptures explore the relationships between contemporary urban place markers and indigenous design. Following in the footsteps of his Plateau Indian ancestors who spoke to the land in the patterns of the baskets, Feddersen interprets the urbanscapes and landscapes surrounding him and transforms those rhythms into art forms that are both coolly modern and warmly expressionistic.

Feddersen was born in 1953, in Omak, Washington, just off the Colville Indian Reservation. His mother was Okanogan and Lakes from Penticton, Canada; his father was the son of German immigrants. He has been a member of the art faculty at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, since 1989. When asked about his work, Feddersen says it is about inquiry - being curious, pursuing questions. Like a scientist or the mathematician he once thought he might be, Feddersen is imaginatively methodical. Intrigued by signs, he sets off on investigations of landmarks, artifacts, and urban place markers.

Vital Signs emphasizes Feddersen's work since the mid-1990s, beginning with the Plateau Geometrics series. The Plateau Geometrics series of prints was a celebration and exploration of the qualities of printmaking, as well as an homage to the great Plateau tradition of abstract graphic design. From Feddersen's perspective, Plateau basket weaving designs have resulted from generations of people living on the land and interpreting their relationship with the land through abstraction- the slanting angles, triangles, and intersecting lines that inhabit basket patterns with names such as "mountain," "salmon gill" and "salmon gut." Feddersen is careful to note that, in his art; he is not mimicking specific basket designs but rendering them into two-dimensional interpretations and refers to this process as working "in the first person." He intentionally chooses designs with ambiguity and few representational elements and incorporates them into his own work.

Feddersen's work in Plateau Geometrics resonates deeply with the history of Plateau abstract design. Though fully modernist, his Plateau Geometrics works are not a rejection of realism but a continuation of the tradition of abstraction in his people's artistic heritage. By rendering this tradition new in the "first-person," Feddersen is paying tribute to it. In the late 1990s, Feddersen took the next logical step: he began to study weaving. The demands of printmaking and weaving are similar - both require discipline, perseverance, methodical practice. Each has sculptural elements - scraping, making marks and incisions, rendering three-dimensional forms. As he continued developing the Plateau Geometrics, Feddersen decided he needed a fuller understanding of basketry and began learning from his friend Elizabeth Woody, an artist and poet who was a student of weaving. Feddersen began experimenting with a variety of materials, including linen, horsehair, waxed paper, and beads. Continuing in his study, Feddersen went home to the Colville Reservation and talked with renowned weaver Elaine Timentwa Emerson about basket designs. For Feddersen, her assertion that design meaning was deeply rooted in location stood out above all else. In other words, the meaning of designs depends upon who the interpreter is and where he or she is from — a very local form of indigenous exegesis. To someone else, in the next valley, the same design may have a different meaning. The aesthetic system allows for individual visions yet is tied to a specific environment and in turn to the cultures that for generations have been rooted in a certain place.

In 2001, Feddersen was awarded the prestigious Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art. The fellowship was an acknowledgment of Feddersen's stature among his peers and in the contemporary Native art world. It affirmed Feddersen's exploration of the relationship between modernism and indigenous aesthetics. Shortly after receiving the Eiteljorg award, Feddersen began his Urban Indian series that includes prints, woven baskets, and glass sculptures. This wide-ranging body of work employs designs that inhabit our contemporary urbanscape, often juxtaposed with Plateau-derived designs abstracted from the indigenous landscape. As Feddersen says, "The newer designs I come up with just acknowledge today's reality... Our landscape is dotted with these high voltage towers. They become part of our existence. Parking lots, everything, becomes part of our land today. I don't know if things become kind of romantic--you look at the landscape and ignore the high voltage towers and the parking lots--but this is where we live and it is part of our life today." (interview with the author, 2007).

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Plateau basket weavers incorporated contemporaneous and ubiquitous designs such as the American flag or floral fabric patterns into "traditional" cornhusk bags and other woven genres. From that lineage, Feddersen's work gives the lie to the notion of a sharp dichotomy between tradition and modernity. Just like the earlier generations of Plateau artists who came before him, Feddersen has improvised upon the traditions he has inherited: "Everybody's unique vision is particular to themselves, but it is multiplied over generations after generations after generations [in Plateau] culture, and the culture is tied in place [to the land]" (interview with the author, 2006). The pulses and patterns of the people and the land flow on, and we are fortunate that Joe Feddersen has entered that flow and shares his powerful insights about these relationships in our time.

Rebecca J. Dobkins is a curator at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art and a professor of anthropology at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon.