Art Seen: ‘Unalaska’ offers true view of the Great Land

By Natasha Ala, for the Redoubt Reporter

Even though we may never see another day this year hit 70 degrees, and despite rumors of yellow leaves appearing on cars in the morning dew, on my calendar it is still summer and I refuse to believe otherwise. That being said, I am certain there are many out there who are still enjoying the pleasure of hosting summer guests. If you have one who is holding onto your couch as tightly as I am holding onto the belief that summer will never end, then I recommend a delightful excursion to the Bunnell Street Arts Center in Homer.

Currently on exhibit is a witty and perceptive show, curated by Asia Freeman, entitled “Unalaskana,” which sheds new light on what it’s really like to live in the Great Land. Freeman has invited four renowned Alaska artists, including Duke Russell, Angela Ramirez, Michael Walsh and Rachel Mulvihill, to share their different perspectives on life in the Last Frontier.

Freeman says she greatly admires these artists for their ability to challenge the romantic image of Alaska.

“As a painter and lover of lush Alaskan landscapes, I have long been impressed with the tenacity of artists who resist objectification of this beautiful place. In fact, many Alaskan artists disavow what has been called ‘alaskaporn’ in favor of more subjective imagery that offers their truthful and gritty perspective of Alaska, ” she said.

Despite being a lifelong Alaskan, I have always struggled to find a connection to the cliché paintings of northern lights bursting over the roof of a cabin in the woods, or photos of spruce trees and moose peppering the landscape. I love the moose, spruce trees and warm cabins nestled in the woods, but I love it even more when artists can bring specific, more-detailed personal experiences into their work. These four artists have succeeded in giving us a more personal story of life in the Alaska landscape.

A Duke Russell piece dispelling some myths of Alaska.

A Duke Russell piece dispelling some myths of Alaska.

Russell has taken a comedic approach to breaking the myths of life in Alaska. Using his signature comic book illustration style, Russell spells out truths known to many who have survived more than a few winters in Alaska, such as “Myth — you can go into the woods with just an ax and survive off the Land. Actually — you’ll last about three weeks at best (and the squirrels are overheard saying told you so).”

Russell’s art is lighthearted and pokes fun at experiences that can sometimes really get under our skin as Alaskans, like an RV with 20 cars backed up behind it that won’t pull over.

“Untitled (Winter house)” by Rachel Mulvihill.

“Untitled (Winter house)” by Rachel Mulvihill.

In her painting, “Untitled (Winter house),” I am impressed at how Mulvihill has captured one precise moment of what it’s like to live in Fairbanks in the dusk of winter. Mulvihill says she aspires to express the landscape the way she sees it.

“Although I am not painting as a documentation, the spaces that I paint always reference specific, not imagined, places. As an Aleut from Fairbanks, Alaska, my cultural heritage is influenced by this place. National Public Radio and McDonald’s have shaped my experience as much as the landscape and Athabascan culture of the Interior Alaska. I consider my paintings to be Alaskan, but specifically they are Fairbanks paintings,” Mulvihill says of her take on the landscape.

“Black Flags” by Angela Ramirez.

“Black Flags” by Angela Ramirez.

There is a lot of black and heavy darkness in the artwork by Ramirez. She has included in the show a study of sunset images, which capture that last burst of light before the sun sets, when all objects are mostly in silhouette. In the darkness of the shadows, Ramirez highlights specific points of interest, like snow illuminated on a rooftop, and the tall, gangly spruce trees that tower over houses in Spenard. Ramirez’s sunsets are full of mystery and poetry.

“Oddly enough, my work became landscapes of my inner states. My head in the clouds. I fell back into the earth two winters ago. It was a long fall, but I got up and said, ‘What a pretty sunset,’” she said.

In his installation piece entitled, “It’s Like Shooting Fish in A Barrel,” Walsh has set up 55-gallon drums and has video images of random Alaska scenes projecting on a screen in the barrels.

“Alaskan art generally favors the beautiful side of our state, while the not-so-pretty goes unmentioned. I’m interested in what is real, right at our feet,” Walsh says of his work.

The images appear randomly, and change rapidly in the barrel, which has the effect of making one feel a bit motion sick. The piece is hard to absorb for any length of time because images change so quickly. Is this Walsh’s statement on the changing landscape of Alaska, the diverse lifestyles of Alaskans, the queasy politics in Alaska or none of the above?

“Unalaskana” offers new notions about living in the landscape of Alaska, and how it can affect each of us in different ways. “Unalaskana” will be on exhibit at the Bunnell Street Art Center in Homer through Sept. 4. For more information and gallery hours, call 907-235-2662.

Natasha Ala is a contributing writer and local art champion who lives in Soldotna.


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