Alaska, through Dan DeRoux’s eyes

Dan DeRoux says he isn’t sure who suggested the idea for his latest exhibit, “Dan DeRoux’s History of Alaska,” opening Friday at the Alaska State Museum (it might have been Paul Gardinier), but whoever it was deserves credit for coming up with an inspired combination of artist, subject and venue, a mix that’s both artistically apt and intriguingly out of whack.


DeRoux belongs here, in the state museum’s gallery, a venue dedicated to showcasing the state’s most highly regarded artists, of which he is certainly one. And in terms of the historical focus of his show, the museum -- the official repository for the state’s history -- seems a natural fit. But that’s also the intriguing part of the pairing. History, in DeRoux’s hands, is a malleable medium. This show includes not only paintings, his primary concentration, but also faux artifacts that could pass as authentic period pieces and historical photographs he’s carefully doctored to look real. There’s something great about these works being shown at a venue dedicated to authenticity and historical accuracy -- and of course that’s partly the point. DeRoux purposely blurs the line between reality and fantasy, perhaps most notably with this show, his largest and most comprehensive to date.

“I’m ready made for this,” he said last week. “And I’ve been having a blast, a total blast doing it. But I try not to let too many people know I’m having so much fun.”

DeRoux said he imagines viewers coming through some parts of his exhibit accepting or questioning the validity of what they see, cracking up or scratching their heads. For example, his historic photograph of miners playing poker has been altered to show them playing Scrabble, using the most difficult letters in the box (x, j and q). The caption reads “Hard-scrabble miners.”

“I’m trying to blur the line, so if a tourist comes in they’ll think ‘oh, hardscrabble miners, hmm.’”

Another piece shows a photo of a tea set he doctored to appear engraved with an intricate combination of Mayan and Tlingit designs. The closer you look, the more interesting it is.

“The idea is that Sir Francis Drake came over and got served tea from the Tlingits,” he said.

It’s out there — but it also references an event that may have actually happened. Some scholars believe Sir Francis Drake might have visited Southeast Alaska in the late 1500s, 200 years before Cook’s arrival in 1778.

DeRoux’s deliberate manipulations of history, like history itself, may or may not be reliable, depending on the piece.

“Some of this stuff will seem just ridiculous, some of it will seem plausible and some of it’s real. Some of the events actually happened,” he said.

In this way the exhibit points up interesting questions about how we imagine and document the past -- and the warping effects of time, individual perception and cultural bias on history. 

DeRoux has played with history before, but for this show he’s taken a much broader view, tracing Alaska’s history from the mythical creation of the world through early exploration and mining up through modern times and into the future. In his Alaska, Drake rubs elbows with Poseidon, while Raven sits across the room guarding his box of light. Here there’s greenhouse gas stations and hunters in the wilderness lit by the glow of their GPS systems.

DeRoux is best known for his paintings, and this show showcases many new pieces, in addition to a few he has borrowed back from their owners to fill in events in his narrative.

Pieces in this show include paintings modeled on classic works by John Singer Sargent and Dutch (Harbor) masters Vermeer and Rembrandt, as well as Alaska master Sydney Laurence.

DeRoux said overall he modeled the exhibit after the American painter and museum founder CW Peale, who started the nation’s first natural history museum in Philadelphia in 1786. Peale collected artifacts, bones and even live animals for the museum, some of which was sent to him by Lewis and Clark, who collected samples during their expeditions. The museum, believed by some historians to have been the precursor to the modern Smithsonian, also featured Peale’s portraits of famous people, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and other Revolutionary War-era American heros.

DeRoux said he’s mounted an life-size image of Peale from one of his paintings, which shows the artist lifting up a curtain to welcome people to his museum, but with his own face superimposed over Peale’s

“I’ve got the velvet curtain and I’ve got the gold brocade and I’m going to do this giant cut-out, life-sized – it’s going to be me and his body.”

DeRoux is a third generation Alaskan who has lived and painted in Juneau nearly all his life. Over the past 30 years, he has shown his work all over the country as well as in Europe and Russia. His paintings have garnered many awards, including a 2008 Governor’s Award for the Arts, and his work is featured in the permanent collections of museums including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Morris Museum in Augusta, Ga., the Anchorage Museum, and both Juneau museums. as well as others. He’s also contributed many of Juneau’s – and Alaska’s – most prominent public works of art, including “Precipitation” the mural on the new parking garage at Main and Egan, and murals at Harborview Elementary and Gastineau Elementary, the “Encryption Wall” at Thunder Mountain High School, and the children’s mural of fairy tale characters at the downtown Juneau Public Library. Statewide his public art pieces include the giant “Focus on Statehood” mural on the Linny Pacillo Parking Garage, made up of more than 500 individual portraits, and “The Visual History of the Natural Sciences,” mural at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

For his most recent public art piece, a flock of geese with wings made out of books for the Anchorage Library, DeRoux turned his energy toward sculpture, a growing interest for him. His “History of Alaska” show features at least three sculptural works, including a red cedar carving of a raven – his very first wood carving.

After this show, which he’s been working on for two years, he hopes to catch a break, and then continue on with more sculpture, more public art, and more painting.

“I have a running list of stuff I’d like to do,” he said. “And sometimes you just run out. Then wait.”

After catching just a glimpse of his new exhibit, it’s hard to believe this artist, whom Alaska painter and art historian Keslar Woodward called “perhaps the most fertile painterly imagination I’ve ever known,” ever has to wait long.


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