When it’s not part of their heritage, artists who bring indigenous or Native American religious symbolism into their work risk patronizing or—at the very least—misunderstanding their inspiration.
Derek Chan avoids this train wreck by being a good listener. In his 2010 book Cries and Whispers from the Salt Song Trail: A Reinterpretive Journey, the Chicago artist chronicles the time he spent with the indigenous peoples of the Four Corners region in the American Southwest. His new meditative paintings also offer sensitive interpretations of that experience. In Glyphs for Protection and Warning: The World on Its Side, Chan places two small kachina dolls so as to reflect their roles as objects of instruction. Reminders of the spirits that infuse all things, living and nonliving, they preside over the brilliant oranges and blues of the painting below them.
This show’s title suggests a Jungian approach to human history as a collective consciousness. Painters’ references to Jungian symbols tend to be heavy-handed, but Chan’s are refreshingly vague. The symbols he paints are open-ended: the moon, an open door, the four cardinal directions.
Three beautiful panel paintings—Origin, Cosmic Weaver (detail pictured) and Gateway—combine these basic mystical symbols with Chan’s distinctive mark making and eye for pattern. Standing before Gateway, the viewer can peer through a six-foot-high rip torn across the evening desert sky, deep into outer (or inner) space. Throughout “All Our Relations,” from the precise ink brushstrokes of Black Smile to the cosmic composition of the spacescape Eclipse, Chan’s skill as a painter is evident.