Marks, a Tlingit artist whose work is unified by its subversive humor and inventive spins on traditional formline art, stretches Tlingit tradition by asserting it in new forms, and questions Western tradition by appropriating it in an unexpected manner.
If you feel the “Mona Lisa” could use a little improvement, “Alison Marks: One Gray Hair” may be a show you don’t want to miss.
Marks is a Tlingit artist, born and raised in Yakutat, Alaska, and now living in Juneau. Her work takes a variety of forms: photography, painting, textiles, multimedia installations. But it’s unified by its subversive humor and its inventive spins on traditional formline art, the distinctive ovoid/curvilinear style in which creatures of myth and legend are depicted in indigenous Northwest Coast art.
In the market for some formline emojis? Marks has a number you can choose from.
“Alison Marks: One Gray Hair”
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays, through Feb. 4, 2018, Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; free (206-622-9250 or fryemuseum.org).
Interested in an inflatable, fluttering tube-man totem pole? Marks has cobbled one together for you.
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There’s a satirical sensibility at play here, especially in “Cultural Tourism,” Marks’ totem pole/tube man mash-up, and her digital manipulations of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa,” Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and Gabriel von Max’s “Pause (At Rest),” in which she replaces the female subjects’ faces with Native American masks.
But Marks is doing more than poking fun. She’s stretching Tlingit tradition by asserting it in unlikely new forms. She’s also questioning Western tradition by appropriating it in an unexpected manner.
Her acrylic on canvas “The Messenger,” for instance, transforms a formline owl — the Tlingit equivalent to Hermes in Greek mythology — into a smartphone-technology QR bar code. Her digital prints on canvas — “BearEmoji,” “EagleEmoji,” “FrogEmoji,” “OwlEmoji,” “WolfEmoji” — put a tidy Tlingit spin on the shorthand vocabulary of social media.
Even her tampering with masterpieces by Leonardo and Vermeer has less to do with impudence than purposeful role reversal. The masks — created for Git-hoan, a Native American dance troupe Marks once performed with — represent the land otter that, in Northwest Coast mythology, can take the guise of alluring women who draw “unsuspecting men” to their doom. Marks has fun transforming these iconic females of Western art into hybrid creatures with a gender-subversive agenda.
Another vein of her work involves ceremonial garb. “Wedding Regalia,” created with Cheryl Easterwood, combines Tlingit dress and Western wedding attire. Its three robes — used in Marks’ own nuptials this past summer — include one in bridal white and two more traditional button blankets designed for Marks’ bridesmaids. (At the press preview, Marks joked that she wouldn’t mind becoming the Tlingit answer to fashion designer Vera Wang.)
“Zenon,” created from shiny, turquoise-hued holographic leather, and “Nebula,” with its copper-colored sheen, take traditional Tlingit garb in flashier directions.
Marks’ ultimate fusion of the traditional with contemporary sensibility may be “Party.” It festoons a traditional deer-hide drum with glass beads and half a dozen miniature disco balls. Clearly, some folks are in for a good time — but what the dance tune will be is anyone’s guess.
As for the painting that lends the show its title, it’s a less irreverent acrylic-on-canvas featuring four formline creatures. Three of them are boldly present and upright. The fourth is more dimly outlined and turned upside-down, with its arms and legs waving and kicking in some kind of protest.
In her droll comments on the piece, Marks says the painting commemorates finding her first gray hair when she was 25. She plucked it out — but named this show after it, to give it its due.