Tools of en­gage­ment

Na­tive artists re­shape lega­cies

Pasatiempo - - News -

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.

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