The Anchorage Museum is opens the All Alaska Juried Exhibition today. It’s a show bringing together works of contemporary art from across the state, and in its 48 years the semi-annual exhibition has served as a showcase for new and evolving art in a state with a rich creative tradition.
“Really the show started to showcase Alaskan artists, and the work that’s being made in the state,” said Caroline Kozak, organizer for this year’s show, the 35th the museum has put on since its first All Alaska Juried exhibition in 1966.
“And to provide a survey of the work that’s currently being produce in a wide variety of media,” she added, speaking in an administrative backroom a day ahead of the show’s opening. In the galleries down below, ladders and scaffolds clanged away as lights were mounted and the finishing touches put on displays.
Defining contemporary art is never easy, and especially not in Alaska. For a long time, fine arts with their roots in Europe were treated as superior to indigenous art, and the two were grouped into separate schools. But in recent decades there’s been a push by galleries and art museums to collapse those boundaries and eliminate the hierarchies of past regimes. As part of that, the AAJ’s submission rules are intentionally broad.
“When we say ‘contemporary art in Alaska’ it really means you live here, and you’re creating art,” Kozak explained.
Kozak handled 600 submissions for the show. And then this year’s jurist, Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson of the Portland Art Museum, selected 40 for the exhibition. Including this year’s winner of the Juror’s Choice award: Anchorage’s Cody Swanson.
“The two pieces that were accepted into this exhibition,” Swanson said of his works, “are pinhole photographs of landscapes that I took using a camera that I built from a cast of my head. So it’s my head on top of a tri-pod.”
Looking at Swanson’s modified photos you can’t tell they came from a self-constructed camera. He built the device to shift away from self-portraits, but still keep himself and his imagination in the world he photographs. Framed on the gallery’s walls, the pictures are moody gray landscapes punctuated by fanciful, almost cartoonish ink sketches of objects that don’t belong. Like a ferris wheel on the cold and windy nub of Beluga Point. Or a wishful bridge out to Fire Island in Cook Inlet.
“The inspiration for this came partly from a 1989 report that I came across at work called ‘Fire Island Crossing,’ that was a proposed bridge or causeway to Fire Island. And whenever I look at Fire Island I always wish I could go over there,” Swanson said after whipping a few dust motes off the picture’s surface, quick smiles sneaking across his face as he explained how he delights putting pieces of the absurd into somber scenes.
Swanson’s Head Camera works are about documenting the outside world with the distortions of memory and imagination. His mixed media works involve a nuanced approach to an old medium: film inside a pinhole camera. But other artists in the show use material like beads, smoked moose hide, beaver, and 55-gallon drums recast as video-screens. Such diversity and range smashes the idea that there’s any one flavor among the state’s community of artists, showing off that “Alaska” and “Contemporary” aren’t contradictory terms when it comes to art.
The Juried Exhibition is open now through February, and admission to the museum is free from 6pm until 9 tonight as part of the First Friday series.