Kent Monkman’s Fail­ure of Moder­nity at Pe­ters Projects

Art­work by Kent Monkman

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Michael Abatemarco The New Mex­i­can

Vis­i­tors to SITE Santa Fe dur­ing the con­tem­po­rary art space’s last bi­en­nial, Un­set­tled Land­scapes, may re­call Cree Na­tion artist Kent Monkman’s Bête Noire, a full-scale dio­rama de­pict­ing an In­dian chief wear­ing a head­dress, sit­ting astride a mo­tor­cy­cle be­side a flat­tened, Cu­bist de­pic­tion of a slaugh­tered bi­son. The in­con­gru­ous im­age con­flates modernism and 19th-cen­tury de­pic­tions of in­dige­nous peo­ples. The bi­son it­self was based on the work of Pablo Pi­casso, whose Cu­bist im­agery finds its way into sev­eral of Monkman’s paint­ings as well as his in­stal­la­tion art. But Monkman is crit­i­cal of the artist who had a rep­u­ta­tion as a wom­an­izer and struck a ma­cho at­ti­tude. Monkman uses Pi­casso as a coun­ter­point to his own per­for­mance-art al­ter ego Miss Chief Ea­gle Te­stickle, an in­dige­nous drag queen Monkman cre­ated to ex­plore themes of cul­tural ex­change, ap­pro­pri­a­tion, and gen­der. “I wanted to talk in my work about col­o­nized sex­u­al­ity,” Monkman told Pasatiempo .“I call it col­o­nized sex­u­al­ity be­cause we had men that lived as women in our cul­tures and the Euro­peans, when they came, they didn’t un­der­stand that. There was just a male-fe­male bi­nary. They couldn’t com­pre­hend that there could be gen­der flu­id­ity and an ac­cep­tance of that in in­dige­nous cul­tures.”

Monkman’s show Fail­ure of Moder­nity, open­ing Fri­day, Jan. 15, at Pe­ters Projects, in­cludes the flat­tened bi­son from the SITE in­stal­la­tion but not the full dio­rama. Monkman’s take on modernism is that much in Euro­pean art was lost dur­ing the modernist pe­riod, but far more was lost to in­dige­nous cul­tures. “My per­spec­tive is that it was a fail­ure for in­dige­nous peo­ple be­cause, in some cases, we’re los­ing our lan­guages, we were put into board­ing schools. It’s been a fail­ure for the rest of the world, too, be­cause when you lose in­dige­nous cul­tures, you lose a lot of knowl­edge: tra­di­tional knowl­edge about how to live off the land, tra­di­tional plants, that sort of stuff. Once th­ese things dis­ap­pear, they’re gone for­ever.”

The show is com­posed pri­mar­ily of Monkman’s paint­ings but also fea­tures mixed-me­dia works that rep­re­sent a new evo­lu­tion for the artist. “The ex­hi­bi­tion also in­cludes what I’m call­ing video paint­ings,” Monkman said. “I do a back­ground paint­ing and video­tape the fig­ures against a green screen and dig­i­tally insert them into the paint­ings. Those are dis­played on mon­i­tors so they’re like liv­ing paint­ings. There’s four brand new works that I’m show­ing and each has char­ac­ters in them. Each one is about two min­utes long. My per­for­mance al­ter ego Miss Chief

is fea­tured in all of them. It’s kind of a nice cross­over of video and film work, per­for­mance work, and the paint­ings.”

Fail­ure of Moder­nity is part of a larger, year­long pro­ject Monkman is work­ing on called Out­side In/

Re­claim­ing Space, which ex­plores Na­tive in­flu­ences on Western art. Pi­casso, for in­stance, bor­rowed from tribal cul­tures in Africa. He and his con­tem­po­raries such as Paul Gau­guin were as­so­ci­ated with Prim­i­tivism, which adapted im­agery from non-Western cul­tures. Monkman’s paint­ings are fig­u­ra­tive nar­ra­tive works that, con­versely, bor­row from Euro­pean art tra­di­tions. Death of the Fe­male, for in­stance, uses a mix of con­tem­po­rary, clas­si­cal, and modernist im­agery. The set­ting is an ur­ban street where a group of Na­tive men come to the aid of a fallen fig­ure: a Cu­bist ren­der­ing of the fe­male form. They’re watched from a dis­tance by an­ti­quated fig­ures de­rived from Na­tive de­pic­tions of 19th-cen­tury painter Ge­orge Caitlin. In the door­way of a run-down

home, one can see a shape cre­ated in the style of a Fran­cis Ba­con ab­strac­tion. “The idea with this body of work was to re­flect on this pe­riod of moder­nity,” Monkman said. “Those painters I’m ref­er­enc­ing — Pi­casso, the Cu­bists, and Fran­cis Ba­con — there was a kind of vi­o­lence to their work in their de­pic­tions of the fig­ure but, more than that, it was re­ally about re­flect­ing on the last 150 years of moder­nity. I was try­ing to ar­tic­u­late that Na­tive Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence us­ing the lan­guage of Western paint­ing.”

Monkman also draws on com­po­si­tions by the Old Masters in his work. Among them are rep­re­sen­ta­tions taken from French Baroque painter Ni­co­las Poussin. “Poussin was one of the sources, and there were a num­ber of other ref­er­ences where I was look­ing for group­ings of the hu­man form, ex­press­ing some kind of pity or dif­fer­ent hu­man emo­tions as­so­ci­ated with some­thing tragic or sad. The last 150 years have rep­re­sented a pe­riod of loss and a kind of com­pres­sion of cul­ture from the point of view of in­dige­nous peo­ple. The flat­ten­ing of the pic­to­rial space in my work kind of func­tions as a metaphor for that.” One of Monkman’s video paint­ings, The Hu­man

Zoo, ref­er­ences a pe­riod dur­ing the late-19th and early-20th cen­turies when pho­tog­ra­phers in­clud­ing Ed­ward S. Cur­tis, an­thro­pol­o­gists, painters in­clud­ing Caitlin, and oth­ers saw Na­tive Amer­i­cans and First Na­tions peo­ples as a van­ish­ing race. The pe­riod was marked by a rush to gather and record as much knowl­edge as pos­si­ble be­fore their cul­tures dis­ap­peared. The re­sult was a pic­ture, frozen in time, by which con­tem­po­rary Na­tive peo­ples are still un­fairly judged and com­pared. Caitlin played a part in per­pet­u­at­ing this idea. “Caitlin cre­ated a large body of work, took it to Europe, and trav­eled around with it, and also took dif­fer­ent groups of Na­tive per­form­ers with him, and they would per­form for Euro­pean au­di­ences as part of his trav­el­ing gallery,” Monkman said. “That was dur­ing that pe­riod of time when Euro­peans were look­ing at a lot of non-Euro­pean cul­tures, and you had things like the hu­man zoos where peo­ple were brought over from other con­ti­nents and dis­played as ex­hibits.” Caitlin is one of the an­i­mated fig­ures in the video paint­ing and so is Miss Chief. “I cre­ated a back story for that char­ac­ter where she was one of those peo­ple who per­formed in his tour­ing ex­hibit. It kind of riffs on Josephine Baker, who was do­ing those re­vues in Paris in the early 20th cen­tury.”

Much of Monkman’s art­work on the theme of modernism and in­dige­nous cul­tures rec­og­nizes backand-forth in­ter­ac­tions be­tween them. “A lot of my work is about the space be­tween cul­tures that’s quite fluid, where dif­fer­ent cul­tures are bor­row­ing from each other and gain­ing and los­ing to each other, as well. I’m try­ing to find the right lan­guage and sources to talk about that space, which is hard to de­fine.”

Kent Monkman: Study for Hope, 2014, wa­ter­color and gouache on pa­per Top, Bête Noire (de­tail), 2014, acrylic and hide on ply­wood Right, Death of the Fe­male, 2014, acrylic on can­vas

The Hu­man Zoo, video paint­ing, 2015; top, The Im­moral Woman, video paint­ing, 2015

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