Remixing the masters
David Bradley appropriates images from historical artworks
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.”
End of the Santa Fe Trail , 1992,
acrylic on canvas