“See Her,” the title of Dyani White Hawk’s exhibition at the Lilley Museum of Art, sounds like a command—but it’s not. The mixed media painting series, shimmering with intricate line and beadwork, is more of a mantra, reverberating through the gallery, finding that special frequency where female identity takes a break from “being looked at” and can just “be seen.”
It’s a small but significant difference that privileges sensory over direct attention, female over male, and—in this exhibition—colonized over colonizers. It’s quiet strength, which also happens to be the name of five of the 11 works in the room.
The first three—titled “Untitled (Quiet Strength II, III, and IV)” respectively—are large enough to walk through with outstretched arms. Each canvas is white but not monochromatic, refracting into a prism of muted colors by thousands of angled acrylic brushstrokes. Shades of cream, pink, pearl, and grey dance on copper, bronze, and gold underpaintings, adding to the undulating effect. From five feet away, the individual strokes that were unique at close range coalesce into larger line, wave, and diamond patterns, giving slightly different impressions from piece to piece.
Standing next to these paintings, modernist artists like Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella, and Agnes Martin might pop into your head, then leave just as quickly as you begin tracing the marks with your eyes, taking in larger and larger chunks of pattern until you lose yourself in a ridge or a wave or a feeling.
It really does feel like quiet strength, and—strangely—something akin to being dissolved in water. Supersaturated and potent, pacific and everywhere, White Hawk’s work can stand alone as an experience unto itself as it ripples from brain to body like the paintings of her abstract counterparts. Unlike them, however, White Hawk’s marks don’t rely solely on an audience to make meaning. For her viewers, the artist draws a line from brain to body to blood, embedding her pieces with references to the quillwork and beadwork traditions that inform her mixed Lakota heritage.
In her white paintings, tightly-packed, dark-backgrounded lines approximate the silhouettes of porcupine quills used for Lakota quillwork—a technique usually associated with the time-consuming process of embroidering regalia and one that is traditionally passed down from woman to woman, generation to generation.
Beadwork shows up in the other paintings in the gallery, many of which invite Rothko and Barnett Newman comparisons with their saturated, bleeding planes of color and bisecting lines. In her artist’s talk, White Hawk mentioned that she has always felt a pull towards color-field work, only to discover later that many abstract expressionists drew their inspiration from native influences. To address this missing link, White Hawk—with the help of her friend and art assistant, Jennie Kappenman—embellishes her color fields with thousands of beads, combining the autonomy of these Western art objects with the collaboration of women’s indigenous artwork to create an aesthetic that reflects the artist’s own background. (She is Sicangu Lakota on her mother’s side and Welsh and German on her father’s).
The resulting blocks of beads—ranging in shape from archways and diamonds to zig zags and rectangles—peacefully protest the narrow boundaries of art history simply by sitting on the canvas, lending their small form to larger movement—and movements. They are the “Her” in “See Her,” a vibrating mass made real through repetition. They are stunning and easy to look at, and the artist knows it. By drawing attention to those who are often invisible in contemporary art spaces, White Hawk implores us to question this omission while recognizing the actual space that indigenous women occupy in the art world. It’s larger than you think.
See Her is on display at the Lilley Art Museum at the University of Nevada, Reno until May 23. Dyani White Hawk is a Minnesota artist and the recipient of six artist fellowships and grants including the 2019 United States Art Fellow, the 2019 Eiteljorg Fellowship, and the MRAC Next Step Grant recipient, which supported the production of the See Her exhibition.