Editor's note: This essay is reprinted with the permission of the author and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art The Museum is presenting Documents and Inventions: Art from the Permanent Collection" April 28 through November 17, 2002. If you have questions regarding the exhibition or the essay, please contact the Anchorage Museum of History and Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Documents and Inventions: Art from the Permanent Collection

Images from Experience

by David Mollett, Guest Curator


A sunny autumn day, an interesting face, an exotic mountain vista, these are inspiration for the representational artist. Artworks as document of things seen, aspirations, or memories dominate the collections of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. Our northern isolation from the contiguous states, large Native community, and close connection with the wilderness make it only natural that most of the works describe an Alaskan experience. The pervasive climate and visual character of the polar regions frame the work made by visitor and resident artist alike. The museum's collections form a comprehensive summary of artistic activity here from the time of the explorer artists to the present, and while there are beautiful examples of abstraction and other genres, the ensemble demonstrates particular strength in the areas of painting and photography from nature and images and objects inspired by life in the North. This exhibition focuses on the experience of wilderness and life in Alaska, whether it be urban or rural.

The selected pieces all show a deep connection between the artist and subject without regard to size or historical importance. Works that artists make primarily for themselves -- not for market or a specialized  audience -- truly allow for self-expression. These can often be small anecdotal works that operate at a level of success far beyond the big artistic machine. I'm drawn to the document of place, person, event, or dream more than the "masterful" object created by design. The timeless in art is best approached by establishing a particular moment that reveals a universal truth rather than a generalized statement, which often falls into the trap of cliché. That is why I have included Sydney Laurence's Chugach Mountains from Spenard and Fireweed, Anchorage rather than a view of McKinley. It is Laurence with his guard down, not trying to make some kind of statement about painting virtuosity or the "Great One." He is simply recording an unassuming potato field, which, after the passing of time, has transformed into a fascinating historical document. Throughout the exhibition, I have preferred works where the artist relaxes away from the grand construction and is motivated by pure visual interest.

The portrait is a subject where the artist, if imposing too much of his own personality or technique, is at risk of failure. Consequently, we find some of the most honest and beautiful images in this area. Jane Terzis' back of the head portrait, Nine Year Old Kid, contributes a contemporary take on the subject that is coy and humorous. Her confident yet lyrical brushwork renders a particular head that becomes youth in general. Henry Varnum Poor's Russian Pilots, Ilya Bolotowsky's Old Russian Couple and Florence Malowotkuk's Siberian Couple are all testimony to the specific reflecting the universal human condition while demonstrating the historically close connection to our near neighbors. Kivetoruk Moses' portraits and views of traditional Native life draw inspiration from youthful trading visits to Siberia. He firmly believed that the old ways and magic rites of the shaman lived on across the Bering Sea. His honesty and enthusiasm for the subject show in his untrained yet sophisticated mixed media technique.  His drawings approach a painterly effect with naturalistic skies and authentic rendering of detail.

Landscape and landmark sites are the stock in trade of Alaskan art. Marvin Mangus' painting of the King Island houses carries on a long tradition of fascination with unique visual sites in Alaska. Edward S. Curtis was captivated by these same buildings in 1925, and Bernard Katexac gives us a former island resident's viewpoint. Spence Guerin, who worked in Anchorage in the 1970s and 80s, finds visual inspiration in mundane places such as Anchorage, 4th Avenue. Guerin is known for addressing the commonplace as well as the sublime. In contrast with the much-seen subject, the Alaskan artist has the advantage of a large diversity of never-before painted or photographed landscapes. The artist as outdoorsman has become an ongoing tradition. Artists like Jim Belhke specialize in finding the unseen and difficult-to-reach vista. He keeps a detailed illustrated diary of his field trips, which provides a window onto the back country experience. One can only guess how many south or northface images have been made of Denali, but for this exhibition we have George Browne's 1947 field painting done during an actual ascent. An aura of romantic and mysterious Arctic wilderness envelopes the factual image, surely produced by the difficulties endured for its creation.  

The WPA artists of the Alaska Art Project like Carl Saxild and Prescott Jones who came in 1937 must have been thrilled to find exciting new material for their paintings. The social realist stylings of the era provide a beautiful screen through which the familiar landscape becomes something out of time. Saxild, a studio painter who worked up his paintings from studies, was a keen observer to do such an original and convincing job on the northern lights in his painting of a now unknown village. David Rosenthal is a contemporary painter who does field studies and uses them along with his memory to create a startling realism. His repertoire of atmospheric light on water imagery evokes an exacting moment of weather and place.      

Photographers take a direct approach to technique in service to the image. Barry McWayne's skillful handling of snow form modulations in Wind Drift, Flood Creek strikes a chord in anyone who has experienced the Alaskan winter. Jim Barker's privilege of neighborly friendship allows for the creation of an image like Grooming at Angelina Ulroan's Home, Chevak, which is a window into a moment that is familiar and universal while a specific look into the lives of strangers.  A sympathic resonance is produced by successful capture of a moment in time with its exacting light revealing a singular place. That specific moment becomes all the similar moments that the viewer has lived or aspired to experience.

The artist's experience filters through the viewer's to become something universal. A visit to the Anchorage Museum of History and Art connects us with a remarkable diversity of Alaskan art. The many and various visual documents satisfy well a quest for knowledge, sensation and experience of wilderness and life in the North.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Anchorage Museum of History and Art in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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