by Renny Pritikin
Technological breakthroughs like photography long ago expanded the reach of memory and imagination, affording us the capacity to visualize the past and the future. Rose B. Simpson, a highly spiritual artist, draws on that ability, but does so with a decidedly pre-modern, Native American/Latinx orientation. What’s immediately clear is that ancestors and descendants inhabit ten larger-than-life ceramic figures. Placed in a semi-circle, they dominate the exhibition, casting an aura of solemn dignity. Using Skeena (Spanish slang for one’s circle of friends and loved ones) as the title for this exhibition, Simpson, a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo (a Tewa tribal community near Espanola, New Mexico), intends to show us that these are her people.
While lacking arms (and often legs), these figures have a compelling presence. Rather than connote action, which the forms foreclose, they exist in a state of pure being, signaled by earth tones and meditative countenances, defined by physiognomies that combine Native American, Asian and African features. Columns substitute for legs, while waists, wrists and necks are adorned with cultural signifiers: scarves, wraps, ropes, bandages, earrings, beaded strings, and in one case a miniature ladder, as well as pictographic markings. The plus sign, a recurring glyph, refers to the four points of the compass, their intersection being the place where one physically resides. These embellishments evoke wounding and healing, affliction, triage and identity. Paradoxically, the figures, while tied to a particular time and place, also communicate with the past and the future.
Two Selves addresses this contradiction. It consists of an adult with a smaller version of herself strapped to the chest, arms outstretched, struggling to break free of constraints. In Freudian terms, Simpson is enacting the need for the life force (eros) and the death force (Thanatos) to be in balance, and, by extension, the contradictory internal states of desire and peace. Parent-child relationships also come up in Daughter 1and Daughter 2. In Navajo folklore time is noted by the day passing along the compass from dawn in the east to nocturnal darkness in the north, so that time and place are linked. Simpson equates the cardinal points of the compass as a plus sign, or cross, to visualize that connection. When she paints a cross on the chest of her figure, she is implying that wherever her daughter is, her heart is always there.
Reception, with its array of circular headgear, recalls Hopi kachina dolls, but its title points to astrophysics and the giant radio telescope dishes used to monitor the cosmos. The reappearance of the cardinal directions sign — painted at the center of each of the clay-colored plates attached to the figure — reinforces this idea of Native cosmology and cutting-edge science overlapping. We are rooted here but our presence extends outward into space, Simpson appears to be saying. Bridge A speaks similarly. This collection of increasingly smaller shapes and figures set one atop the other suggests an infinite progression of life.
Alter-Piece, a triptych made of clay, wood, metal and paint, depicts the ruins of a southwest Native American village viewed from above, with signs and symbols painted on the “ground.” Its abstract human form, defined by a round face and a “backbone” made of black circles around brass vertebrae, suggests a lost civilization being contemplated by silent effigies. Finally, a sensational wall installation titled Space Baskets, shows 75 earth-toned papier maché objects ranging in size from a few inches to a couple of feet in diameter evenly dispersed across a wall. Each carries a cross at its center, creating a field of stars. Simpson’s message: By knowing your ancestry, your place on Earth and your position in the cosmological scheme of things, you can navigate – here and in the hereafter.
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Rose B. Simpson: “Skeena” @ Jessica Silverman through December 23, 2023.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal and the author of a recently published memoir, At Third and Mission: A Life Among Artists.