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Growing, Faltering, Changing, Growing: Lessons From Kay WalkingStick

Growing, Faltering, Changing, Growing: Lessons From Kay WalkingStick

In the 21st century, Ms. WalkingStick has been revisiting the grand landscapes of the American West in her art, and visually reclaiming them for their rightful, Native American owners. In the diptych “Our Land” (2007), she interrupts an Alfred Bierstadt-style vista with Native American weaving designs. And in “New Mexico Desert” (2011), bands of traditional Navajo patterning float across scrub land and mesas as if surveying and protecting them. It’s the visual equivalent of hearing two very different languages, carrying the same assured and assertive message, spoken simultaneously.

As if to set that tone, this beautiful painting, done with a fluidity new to Ms. WalkingStick’s art of the past decade, opens the retrospective, which originated at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, in 2015, organized by Kathleen Ash-Milby and David W. Penney, scholars and curators at the museum. In Washington, the show was almost twice the size of the traveling edition, which is making its final stop at Montclair. (Gail Stavitsky, the museum’s chief curator, has coordinated the installation there.)

In the compressed version you inevitably lose a certain historical depth, particularly in the early phase of Ms. WalkingStick’s career, when she was first involved in the New York scene. At the same time, Montclair, by virtue of its superb permanent collection, places her in the context of 19th-century American landscape painting and 20th-century modernism in a way the Washington museum couldn’t, and that’s a gain.

Most important, her essential work is here, and the chronological shape of her career is intact. The show lets us see an artist of deep curiosity and poised discipline developing an art that will let her give politics and personal history, reality and memory with equal, and eventually undivided weight. A successful retrospective should feel like a marriage of personal journal, time capsule and moral tale. This one does.

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