Tools of engagement
Native artists reshape legacies
Star Wallowing Bull’s paintings in the exhibit Mechanistic Renderings represent a new direction for the Fargo-based artist, known for his intricate, Pop-inspired colored-pencil drawings. Like his works on paper, his recent paintings appropriate imagery from popular culture, but in them, he takes a more reductive, geometric approach to figuration, using representations of electronic components, nuts, bolts, and similar objects to form his robotic portraits. Mechanistic Renderings is one of four solo shows opening at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts on Friday, Jan. 23. On the cover is Wallowing Bull’s 2013 painting Toxic Seahorse; all Wallowing Bull images courtesy Bockley Gallery.
IN the second half of the 19th century, when many Native Americans were incarcerated as prisoners of war in places like Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, ledger books and ledger paper became their primary medium for artistic expression. At Fort Marion, Richard Henry Pratt was charged with command of prisoners from the Red River War, a military campaign to forcibly remove Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche peoples from the Great Plains to reservations on Indian Territory that resulted in clashes between indigenous tribes and the U.S. military. Pratt’s programs of cultural assimilation involved courses in Western history and the English language. Natives were encouraged to reject their tribal heritages because it was assumed that they’d be more likely to adjust to white society without them. As part of their learning, these prisoners were supplied with art materials that included ledger books, paints, pencils, and other supplies by the military officers, missionaries, and government agents. The drawings made in the ledger books and on other paper goods sometimes were self-portraits and sometimes captured such aspects of Native life as warfare, hunting, courtship, and religious practices. Ledger art became a widespread means of preserving Native identity, in particular among the Plains tribes — and versions of it are still produced today.
Contemporary pieces are often quite different stylistically from those of the first ledger drawings. The 19th-century works were flat, pictographic scenes that often showed little in the background. Contemporary artists working in this tradition tend to create more highly detailed, realistic drawings while still using ledgers as a surface. Chicago-based artist Chris Pappan, one of four artists with solo exhibitions opening on Friday, Jan. 23, at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, is influenced by the ledger-art tradition but takes a conceptual approach, making the changing aspects of ledger art his theme.
“I try to push those boundaries of what people define ledger art as,” Pappan told Pasatiempo. His show Account Past Due, Ledger Art and Beyond is a selection of mixed-media works on paper and large-scale paintings. Where he incorporates actual ledgers and other kinds of historical ephemera (a U.S. Cavalry recruitment ledger, a jeweler’s ledger, a mining certificate, photographs, old maps) into his compositions, they become collaged elements and not, as in the past, pages, blank or otherwise, that he has drawn on.
Two of Pappan’s paintings are in the exhibit. Transitioning depicts a sexualized Native woman wearing a buffalo head — the idealized “Indian princess,” who stands counter to the stereotype of the “noble savage.” Unrelenting shows a nude couple that, though unclothed, wears stereotypical indicators of “nativeness” — specifically, a deer head on the woman and a feather headdress on the man. The title hints at the persistence of stereotypes, which linger on even after cultural signifiers have been stripped away. In both paintings Pappan uses acrylics to replicate such aspects of old ledger books as their yellowed paper, blue lines, and margins. The imagery mixes contemporary realism with pictographic figures that are more typical of historical ledger drawings, including their sparse backgrounds. “The paintings incorporate some imagery from old ledger drawings that I researched here in Chicago at the Field Museum,” he said. “It references the importance of being able to remember things that have happened in the past to help us move forward in the future. I do that a lot in my work: combine the old and the new. I work from old photographs and treat them in a modern, Pop-Surrealist way.”
Pappan’s mixed-media pieces are a combination of graphite drawing, gold leaf, and collaged elements. Their detailed figures are made as if seen through an anamorphic lens. The distortions suggest how perceptions of indigenous peoples can be skewed because they fail to consider contemporary contexts or even individual histories and experiences in favor of a more homogenous view of Native identity. “We, as Native people, will distort that image as well,” Pappan said. “The issue that I deal with is, How much do we decide to play that up? How do we as Native people play into that or not play into it? If we do play into it, do we perpetuate the stereotypes? For each individual Native person, it’s a personal thing.” But as his drawing Black Hawk’s Progeny indicates, Native artists are the inheritors of an evolving, rather than a fixed, tradition. Black Hawk, one of the better-known 19th-century ledger artists, is believed to have been killed during the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. By juxtaposing contemporary and older styles, Pappan sets out to demonstrate how ledger art has developed over the past century, where it came from, and where it’s going. This is also true of his paintings, where the influence of European aesthetics shares space with the pictographic Plains designs he adapted from the historic precedents he saw at the Field Museum. “Some of the old ideas are still relevant today,” he said. “There’s a lot of dichotomy going on visually, with figures being mirrored on the page.”
Like Pappan, Star Wallowing Bull is known primarily for his skillfully detailed drawings — but he has recently turned to painting as well. His exhibition Mechanistic Renderings, however, makes less explicit allusions to long-standing artistic
traditions. Wallowing Bull’s paintings are abstractions. He paints such things as computer circuit boards, spark plugs, and nuts and bolts arranged into geometricized, anthropomorphic figures. “That developed from when I was a kid. I loved Transformers,” he said. Wallowing Bull was raised in Minneapolis, where he struggled to make it as an artist. “Things weren’t really working out for me then, but I met [Pop artist] James Rosenquist, and he sort of took me in and mentored me.”
Mechanistic Renderings includes several examples of Wallowing Bull’s Prismacolor-pencil drawings, densely packed with representations from American pop culture, historical events, animals, symbols, and autobiographical content. His Little Star, included in the show, is a self-portrait, despite an abundance of seemingly unrelated images of such commercial memes as Pinocchio, Crayola crayons, a Rubik’s Cube, and Superman’s logo. At the center of the mandala-like composition is a small boy — Wallowing Bull as a child — and the various items around him have a connection to his past. In the lower right section of the work is a portrait of Rosenquist. Near the upper left corner is a portrait of Wallowing Bull’s father. “They were two of the biggest influences in my life. That drawing’s about where I was when I lived in Minneapolis, and when I moved to Fargo, things turned around, so I put in a lot of hopeful, positive things like the Superman symbol. I included Pinocchio because I could relate to not feeling like a real boy, but I do now. I finally turned things around.”
Wallowing Bull also has a fascination with cars and auto components such as chrome hood ornaments. Numerous works reference items related to oil and gas. A bottle of Mobil oil might be depicted, or as in his Toxic Seahorse, an allusion is made to the BP oil spill. There, the gas-mask-wearing creature, highlighted by brightly colored commercial logos, is surrounded by blackness. “When that happened, no one was really talking about how it impacted the animal life,” he said. “The black around it represents the oil in the water.”
Showing concurrently with Mechanistic Renderings and Account Past Due at MoCNA are Mihio Manus: Heavy Volume, Small Spaces and Dark Light: The Ceramics of Christine Nofchissey McHorse. The latter is a nationally touring exhibit that was curated by Santa Fe residents Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio, both of whom collect ceramics and have written extensively about them. This is the first traveling show of McHorse’s works (included is a range from 1997 to the present), black micaceous clay pieces that suggest traditional pottery designs but are more sculptural. “Her ceramics seem as much indebted to forms of modern sculpture as they do to traditional vessels,” said interim museum curator Candice Hopkins. Dark Light also includes a number of drawings the artist used as studies for her ceramic pieces. The to-scale drawings reveal the unusual approach McHorse takes in her art-making process. “She determines the form from the outset,” Hopkins said, “unlike the way a lot of other artists work, where they feel like the clay itself determines the form.”
Wallowing Bull: top,
Little Star, 2009, colored pencil on paper; bottom,
The Optimator, 2014, acrylic on canvas
Mechanistic Renderings includes several examples of Wallowing Bull’s Prismacolor-pencil drawings, densely packed with representations from American pop culture, historical events,
animals, symbols, and autobiographical content.