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Art: Carved ivory reveals art's infancy

Delicately detailed Bering Strait pieces made of walrus tusk were part of daily life.

This comb, intricately carved from tusk, is part of an exhibition of Bering Strait ivories at the Princeton University Art Museum.
This comb, intricately carved from tusk, is part of an exhibition of Bering Strait ivories at the Princeton University Art Museum.Read moreBRUCE M. WHITE

The beginning of art is usually buried so deep in the past as to be inaccessible, but for the next six weeks it's spectacularly visible at the Princeton University Art Museum in an exhibition called "Gifts from the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait."

This landmark presentation is both a large show and a small one - large in that it comprises nearly 200 objects but small in that most of them could be carried in a small suitcase.

They are for the most part carvings from walrus ivory made over the last two millennia by indigenous peoples who lived, and whose descendants still live, on both sides of the 55-mile-wide strait that separates Alaska and Russian Siberia.

Richly patined from decades or even centuries of being buried in the earth, the artifacts include hunting implements such as harpoons, tools, ornaments, ritual objects, and figures in human and animal form.

Some of the figures are ingeniously polymorphic, meaning that they either represent more than one creature or that their shapes shift with the viewing angle.

Material of this kind has traditionally been considered ethnographic, yet the aesthetic component, even in functional items such as scrapers, combs, and harpoon accessories, is pronounced and ubiquitous.

Add to this the large number of totemic figures presumed to embody spiritual values, and you have persuasive evidence that art played an important role in the lives of neolithic peoples.

The Princeton objects, from more than 20 public and private collections, aren't ancient in either historical or geological terms, but they represent a practice that reaches back well before the advent of the ancient civilizations for which there is durable evidence.

We can presume, therefore, that in these ivories we are looking to the wellspring of what today we classify as art.

These carvings are impressive and memorable in at least two aspects. First, they demonstrate a total integration of art into daily life, something that hasn't existed in the West for centuries.

By "integrated" I mean not just as decoration but as an intrinsic and necessary part of existence. It's always thrilling to encounter art that functions as something more than a conversation-starter.

Second, the conceptual designs are imaginative and sometimes complex, and the workmanship is remarkably deft, given that the artists and artisans worked in dimly lit, partially buried spaces with primitive, nonmetallic tools such as bow drills and slate knives.

Yet, despite being constrained by the cylindrical form of the walrus tusk, they were able to produce tiny sculptures of remarkable delicacy and sensitivity, like a fox with a broad, blade-shaped tail and a delightful seal effigy with parallel, curved incisions that describe a rhythmic pattern along its slender body.

Another of the more impressive exhibits is a set of 13 tiny birds, each about an inch long, used as game pieces. The forms are elegantly reductive, simplified but not simplistic, yet so diminutive that the whole baker's dozen could be held in one's hand.

Not all the motifs, especially the polymorphic ones, are easy to decipher. One of the most beautiful carvings, wall-mounted at the entrance to the show, suggests one fish swallowing another.

The butterfly-shaped pieces identified as harpoon counterweights are usually even more abstract. By contrast, the human heads and full figures are fully descriptive if elemental, like Cycladic sculptures, which a few resemble.

As noted, the material itself can be luscious, with soft patinas ranging from near ebony to deep mahogany to russet. These are acquired from minerals and organic substances in the burial sites, which have been commercially exploited by indigenous peoples on both sides of the strait since these artifacts became known in the 1930s and '40s.

Bering ivories aren't nearly as familiar to museumgoers as most other indigenous American art. Consequently, this elaborate, beautifully installed display, accompanied by a comprehensive catalog, comes as a welcome and highly instructive revelation.

Emmet Gowin will retire from teaching photography at Princeton at the end of this year. To celebrate his 36-year-tenure, the museum has organized a modestly scaled exhibition that brackets a capsule summary of his career between images by two of his mentors and by 20 students whom he has mentored.

Gowin, who lives in Bucks County, has built a national reputation on early photographs of his family, especially his wife, Edith, and aerial landscapes of the American West that reveal transformations effected by such phenomena as pivot irrigation and nuclear weapons testing.

The show's format, teacher and students showing together as colleagues, reflects the annual (since 1987) production of a portfolio to which Gowin and his students contributed. The museum received a copy of each year's edition.

The exhibition opens with a peek at Gowin the graduate student, with the handwritten portfolio statement he submitted with his master's degree project at Rhode Island School of Design in 1967. There he studied with the legendary Harry Callahan, whose portraits of his wife, Eleanor, (one is in the show) presumably inspired Gowin to make his wife a primary subject.

Gowin was also inspired by Frederick Sommer, whose work is being shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Jan. 3. One of Sommer's distinctive still-life arrangements documents that link at Princeton.

(Gowin also is one of eight Philadelphia-area photographers included in the Art Museum's "Common Ground," through Jan. 31.)

Gowin's work has been marked through his career by intimacy and intensity; the viewer usually senses that he is engaged with his subjects as more than a neutral observer. This is obvious in the family portraits, but also more subtly in the later landscapes and even in a sample of his more recent work, a color composite of Ecuadorean moths.

The work of his students varies widely in subject and technique, but if there is a common denominator it's this intensity of engagement, seen, for instance, in Laura McPhee's picture of a banyan tree enveloping a diminutive temple in Bengal.

I entered the museum expecting a small retrospective, but as it developed I was not disappointed with this collegial homage in which Gowin accounts for only about half the pictures.

Art: The Origins of Art

"Gifts from the Ancestors" continues at the Princeton University Art Museum through Jan. 10. "Emmit Gowin: A Collective Portrait" runs through Feb. 21. The museum, in the center of the campus, is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., to 10 p.m. Thursdays, and from 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Free admission. Information: 609-258-3788 or http;//