Remix­ing the masters

David Bradley ap­pro­pri­ates images from his­tor­i­cal art­works

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Michael Abatemarco David Bradley

Born in Eureka, Cal­i­for­nia, and raised in Min­neapo­lis, artist David Bradley merges pop-cul­ture icons, ap­pro­pri­a­tions from art his­tory, images spe­cific to Santa Fe (where he now lives), and ref­er­ences to in­dige­nous civ­i­liza­tions through­out the Amer­i­cas in his work as a way to ex­plore so­cial and po­lit­i­cal jus­tice from a Na­tive per­spec­tive.

In­dian Coun­try: The Art of David Bradley , an ex­hibit of paint­ings and sculp­ture, opens at the Mu­seum of In­dian Arts & Cul­ture on Sun­day, Feb. 15, with a va­ri­ety of re­lated events that in­cludes a per­for­mance by the Je­mez Buf­falo Dancers out­side MIAC’s en­trance on Mil­ner Plaza at 1 and 2:30 p.m.; a panel dis­cus­sion mod­er­ated by 2014 Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom re­cip­i­ent Suzan Harjo at 1:30 and 3 p.m.; a 2 p.m. re­cep­tion; and a sign­ing of the ex­hibit’s cat­a­log by Bradley, Harjo, and ex­hibit cu­ra­tor Va­lerie Verzuh at 2:30 p.m.

Bradley, a Chippewa artist from an im­pov­er­ished house­hold, was placed in foster homes from a young age but was even­tu­ally adopted by a non-Na­tive fam­ily. Verzuh writes in the ex­hibit cat­a­log that this “story is not an un­usual one for In­dian chil­dren” prior to the pas­sage of the In­dian Child Wel­fare Act of 1978. Re­moved from his tribal her­itage and cul­ture and raised in white so­ci­ety, Bradley ex­pe­ri­enced first­hand the racism to­ward Na­tive peo­ples preva­lent in Min­nesota at the time. It fu­eled mem­bers of his ex­tended fam­ily to found the Amer­i­can In­dian Move­ment (AIM), an ac­tivist or­ga­ni­za­tion that took on the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to honor land treaties and rec­og­nize tribal sovereignty. Though th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences in­form much of Bradley’s art, he in­fuses his com­po­si­tions with hu­mor­ous satire, tem­per­ing them as well with per­sonal ref­er­ences.

His paint­ings are of­ten filled with mem­o­rable char­ac­ters — some of them celebri­ties, oth­ers con­nected to his own past his­tory. For in­stance, his paint­ing El Farol, Canyon Road Cantina , an acrylic-on-can­vas from 2000, de­picts a vi­brant group in the land­mark Santa Fe estab­lish­ment, with Na­tives and non-Na­tives min­gling while jazz mu­si­cians blast out a tune on­stage. In the crowd you can glimpse Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe, Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton, and a passed-out Vin­cent van Gogh, rec­og­niz­able by the ban­dage he wears over his miss­ing ear. Among the rev­el­ers are such familiar Santa Feans as a busily sketch­ing Tommy Ma­caione and Bradley him­self. “I have al­ways been a mu­si­cian, and I am play­ing the sax on­stage, along with artists Stan Natchez and Steve Deo and Dr. Ron Press,” he told Pasatiempo . “There is a ref­er­ence out­side to the Mayan pyra­mid from Tikal — I vis­ited there when I was a Peace Corps vol­un­teer in Gu­atemala.”

Char­ac­ters of­ten reap­pear through­out Bradley’s work. In some of his more pop­u­lous com­po­si­tions, like El Farol and Har­vest Moon, Godzilla vs. Zo­zo­bra (a 2009 acrylic-on-can­vas in which the Ja­panese mon­ster uses his fire-breath­ing abil­i­ties to burn the ef­figy), an FBI agent can be seen lurk­ing among the throng, a two-way ra­dio pressed to his mouth. Both paint­ings are in­cluded in the show. AIM’s his­tory of con­tentious en­coun­ters with the FBI was brought to na­tional at­ten­tion af­ter the death of two agents dur­ing a stand­off on the Pine Ridge In­dian Reser­va­tion in 1975, a crime for which Na­tive ac­tivist Leonard Peltier was con­victed (and many be­lieve wrongly so) two years later.

Bradley’s com­po­si­tions also fre­quently make ref­er­ence to fa­mous paint­ings. In two of sev­eral takes on Grant Wood’s Amer­i­can Gothic , the artist swaps the icon­i­cally dour cou­ple for such fig­ures as Sit­ting Bull and Tonto and the Lone Ranger. A 2011 acrylic-on-can­vas de­picts the fic­ti­tious Texas law­man and his Na­tive side­kick as cu­rio ven­dors out­side a trad­ing post, on top of which a weather vane homag­ing James Earle Fraser’s End of the Trail sculp­ture perches. Th­ese paint­ings aren’t in the show (they’re in­cluded in its cat­a­log, how­ever), but some of Bradley’s more generic Amer­i­can In­dian Gothic works, which show Na­tive cou­ples, are on view. “I have al­ways loved look­ing at art,” he said. “I took art his­tory cour­ses at the Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona and at IAIA, and re­ally looked for­ward to sit­ting in those classes and watch­ing a good slide show with a good pro­fes­sor like [IAIA] Prof. John Dixon nar­rat­ing. It was a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion for me to start im­i­tat­ing those iconic images of West­ern art. I started do­ing take­offs of the Mona Lisa , Amer­i­can Gothic , the Last Supper , Henri Rousseau’s Sleep­ing Gypsy , et cetera, but I did them from my per­spec­tive. I have al­ways had a very ac­tive, ab­surd sense of hu­mor. I ig­nored peo­ple telling me that hu­mor has no place in ‘se­ri­ous art.’” Bradley re­ceived an as­so­ciate de­gree in fine art from the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can In­dian Arts be­fore earn­ing a bach­e­lor’s de­gree from the Col­lege of Santa Fe in 1980. “An­other rea­son I of­ten chose to do paint­ings that in­volved iconic images is that they were ac­ces­si­ble to the masses. Nearly ev­ery­one was familiar with images like Amer­i­can Gothic ; it was ev­ery­where.”

Many of th­ese ap­pro­pri­a­tions are not a one-time deal, re­cur­ring in­stead through­out his oeu­vre. In To Sleep, Per­chance to Dream , a 2005 acryli­con-can­vas in­cluded in the ex­hibit, Bradley re­places Rousseau’s lion, which stands above the fig­ure of the sleep­ing Gypsy, with a moun­tain lion. In a sim­i­lar com­po­si­tion from 2007, which can be seen in the cat­a­log, the lion be­comes a bear. The artist also re­con­tex­tu­al­izes Rousseau’s paint­ing from a Na­tive point of view in re­lief sculp­ture. Sleep­ing In­dian , from 2013 (also in the cat­a­log), de­picts a sim­i­lar mo­tif, ren­dered in pati­nated bronze. In sev­eral of th­ese works, “Santa Fe” ap­pears in big let­ters ris­ing from hills in the back­ground — much like “Hol­ly­wood” does in Los An­ge­les — a ref­er­ence, per­haps, to the art mecca’s pre­ten­sions. In­deed, Bradley de­lights in skew­er­ing memes of the Santa Fe and New Mex­ico art scenes. And so the ex­ploita­tion of Na­tive artists and their works hasn’t es­caped his sar­donic gaze. “Con­tem­po­rary Na­tives like Fritz Scholder put In­dian art on the map and made it chic to col­lect. That In­dian art frenzy of the 1970s and ’80s at­tracted a lot of con artists, who smelled easy money and a way to get ahead in the art world by claim­ing to be In­di­ans when they were not. Some of the most suc­cess­ful ‘In­dian’ artists were, and are, com­plete frauds. Even to this day, some of them carry on their scam with the help of sleazy gal­leries and lawyers who know how to skirt the fraud laws. For over 500 years In­dian peo­ple have had our land and nearly ev­ery­thing else stolen from us. Now that In­dian iden­tity has be­come a very mar­ketable com­mod­ity, they want to steal that from us, too. I was one of the few who stood up and said, ‘No! We are not go­ing to lay down and let that hap­pen.’ But it has been a long, ter­ri­ble battle, and one that earned me the ti­tle of the most-black­listed In­dian artist in the coun­try. I even had a cou­ple of po­lit­i­cally con­nected, in­flu­en­tial In­dian artists threaten and at­tempt to ruin my ca­reer be­cause they sold out their own peo­ple.”

For Bradley, ex­pos­ing so­cial injustice is a step to­ward end­ing it. A mem­ber of a gen­er­a­tion sep­a­rated phys­i­cally from its tribal iden­tity, he was the tar­get of racism in Min­nesota, grow­ing up in a cli­mate where forced as­sim­i­la­tion was the norm. Later, at­tend­ing classes at the Col­lege of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities area in the 1960s, he con­tin­ued to ex­pe­ri­ence prej­u­dice — but never let his spir­i­tual con­nec­tion to his her­itage waver. To­day the artist faces an­other strug­gle: In 2011, he was di­ag­nosed with ALS. The dis­ease, which has no known cure, has af­fected his speech, but not his abil­ity to paint or sculpt. Among his more re­cent work is a se­ries of non­rep­re­sen­ta­tional ab­strac­tions made us­ing poured paint; they are in­cluded in the show. His health notwith­stand­ing, Bradley con­tin­ues to de­pict In­dian sub­jects with a con­tro­ver­sial bent, al­ways chal­leng­ing, through his art, the con­ven­tional, ro­man­tic, and false rep­re­sen­ta­tions made by non-Na­tives. “I spent much of my ca­reer tak­ing up causes and bat­tling pseudo-In­dian prof­i­teers. Most of that also hurt my ca­reer, but I have al­ways be­lieved in do­ing the right thing. To be an artist is to seek truth.”

cap­tion

End of the Santa Fe Trail , 1992,

acrylic on can­vas

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