Sarah Sense, Power Lines @Bruce Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 color photographic works, framed in light wood, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, near the reception desk, and in the office area. All of the works are woven archival inkjet prints on Hahnemuhle bamboo paper and artist’s tape, some with additional Hahnemuhle rice paper and beeswax, made in 2022. Physical sizes range are roughly 27×27 or 40×40 inches for the flat works and roughly 14×14 inches (with a depth of roughly 2 inches) for the basket-style constructions, and all of the works are unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past few years, as previously marginalized artistic voices are being rediscovered more broadly, interest in the work of contemporary Native American photographers has been steadily increasing. And while outsiders made many of the photographic documents of the lives and traditions of Native peoples in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we are now turning (or returning as it may be) to the more recent photographic works of Native Americans themselves, and of course discovering that their stories are richer and more complicated than those first pictures ever taught us.

One of the common themes that recurs in the works of many contemporary Native artists is a layered and sometimes conflicted sense of personal identity. Tribal traditions rub against modern cultural realities and pressures; deep connection to the land wrestles with life in cities and on reservations; histories of injustice and violence, both old and new, remain raw; and long-established stereotypes and prejudices still demarcate how some Native Americans are seen and treated. So Native artists are devising new strategies for representing both themselves and the struggles they face in merging, redirecting, or indeed rejecting some or all these influences, and many of the approaches they are now coming up with cross the usual boundaries of artistic mediums, leveraging traditional Native artistic methods in innovative ways.

For Sarah Sense, this kind of nuanced investigation of Native identity hybridization starts with her own personal background and heritage. Sense was born to a Native mother and a non-Native father, with familial ties to two different tribes and geographies (the Choctaw in Oklahoma and the Chitimacha in Louisiana). She was raised in Sacramento, California, did her graduate work at Parsons in New York, and is now a fellow at the British Library. Her artworks bring together all of these influences, and others, weaving them together into integrated two- and three-dimensional photographic objects that force alternate viewpoints of herself and Native history more broadly into a shifting and often uneasy visual dialogue.

For Sense, weaving isn’t just a handy metaphor for how she brings these conflicting ideas together; it is a physical practice, with long standing roots in the artistic traditions of her tribes. Native peoples have of course explored weaving in many forms and for many purposes, from textiles and clothing to baskets, quilts, and rugs, and have developed sophisticated representational, spiritual, and abstract patterns unique to each tribe. Sense first learned about weaving from her grandmother, and then with the blessing of her tribal leaders, began experimenting with her own variations of the traditional methods.

Sense weaves together photographic prints, creating intricate structures that repeat across the surface of the resulting works – when like colored prints are woven together, the patterns are only subtly visible, and when higher contrast images are blended, the patterns pop with more visual authority. Many of Sense’s works feature a four-pointed star motif, while others have a six pointed figure or diagonal stripes of smaller dashes and boxes; and depending on the underlying imagery, these woven patterns oscillate in and out of legibility, sometimes bold, and in other cases, more dissolved and diffused. Most of the works are two dimensional, becoming something akin to wall hangings or textile fragments, but a few of the smaller weavings have deliberately curved sides, creating basket-like forms with more depth and physical presence.

While we might reasonably expect a woven work to merge two distinct photographs into a singular whole, Sense has actually taken that simplicity and amplified it significantly by layering together (or digitally montaging) multiple sources of imagery before the final physical interlocking takes place. While it isn’t always easy to unravel all of the discrete imagery embedded in some of these weavings, many of the works combine landscape images (taken during Sense’s trips to Louisiana and Texas, particularly of the Bayou Teche, Avery Island, and the New Orleans delta, as well as on the California coast) with self-portraits made playing the characters of “Indian Princess” and “Cowgirl”. To these, Sense has added fragments of family photos, found Hollywood movie posters featuring stereotypical Native Americans, and other archival imagery of famous figures such as Sitting Bull, General Custer, and Buffalo Bill, who linger in the resulting weavings like shifting ghosts.

These sources might have been enough to capture some of the multiplicity of identity that Sense sees in herself, or that others blindly attribute to her given her heritage. But her recent time at the British Library seems to have been particularly fruitful in terms of unearthing a trove of colonial era materials that add layers of historical depth to these weavings. She’s found old maps (with ever-changing borders and demarcations), drawings of trade systems, letters to the British monarchy, registries of trading activities (including Native slaves), rare manuscripts, deeds of land with Native signatures, geological surveys, and other colonial documents, many relating directly to her own tribes and their ancestral territories. Fragments of these sources find their way into her weavings, the words and historical marks hovering amid the other imagery as though the weavings are speaking to us directly.

Seen as integrated objects, Sense’s weavings shift in and out with sophistication, never quite resolving to one dominant point of view or message; representation and historical resonance ultimately give way to craftsmanship and pattern-making, each of the influences and sources incorporated into works that combine complexity and contradiction rather than separate them. In this way, Sense’s works are reminiscent of Dinh Q. Lê’s similarly woven works, which merge images from Vietnam and Cambodia with Hollywood portrayals and other visual histories, his basket techniques drawn from the teachings of his own family.

It is often the case that when photographers decide to weave their prints together, the results feel self-consciously crafty, like they are trying to use the physical interlocking to make their photographs more interesting. In Sense’s case, her weaving isn’t an empty embellishment or a decorative afterthought, but a fully integrated conceptual pathway that brings her Native traditions right into the physical making of the work. In this way, the weaving feels natural and celebratory rather than forced, and Sense has smartly added different kinds of imagery to her underlying montages, encouraging alternate (and sometimes deliberately conflicting) facets of her shifting identity to come through when the pictures are ultimately laced together.

What’s intriguing to consider is that photography collectors will see one set of aesthetic and historical connections in these works, while museums and collectors of Native American artifacts will see perhaps an altogether different set of contemporary resonances and allusions. This crossover effect broadens the potential reach of these works, as they will appeal to a range of audiences that haven’t typically been in particular alignment. Breaking down the edges of these domains is likely overdue, and forcing the overlap of one medium-specific definition with another driven by culture, history, and geography will hopefully open up some new ways of thinking on both sides. In this way, Sense’s weavings, and works by other Native artists and photographers, can act as a bridge, re-linking parts of the art world that didn’t realize they had common interests.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $6000, $10000, and $18000, based on size. Sense’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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