Na­tive para­dox

Fritz Scholder

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - FR ITZ SCHOLDER

Fritz Scholder (19372005) once claimed he would never paint In­di­ans as his sub­ject. There’s been a lot of con­tro­versy re­gard­ing his state­ment, par­tic­u­larly be­cause it turned out to be in­cor­rect. Not only did Scholder — who also claimed he was not In­dian, de­spite be­ing one-quar­ter Luiseño — paint Na­tive Amer­i­cans, but he did so pro­lif­i­cally, through two decades. He also did so in a way that was more hon­est than other re­gional artists, whose de­pic­tions of Na­tive peo­ples were of­ten largely mis­in­formed and based on ideas of the In­dian as a noble sav­age or as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a by­gone world.

Scholder’s paint­ings are of­ten char­ac­ter­ized by art his­to­ri­ans and cu­ra­tors as para­dox­i­cal. He may have changed his mind about paint­ing Na­tive peo­ples, but what makes his work ex­tra con­tra­dic­tory is that he painted not just In­di­ans but su­per In­di­ans: por­traits that were mas­sive in size and that of­ten de­picted in­dige­nous peo­ple amidst mark­ers of so­ci­ety at large. More than 40 such works are on ex­hibit in Su­per In­dian:

Fritz Scholder: 1967-1980, com­ing to the Phoenix Art Mu­seum on Feb. 27. The paint­ings are full of con­tra­dic­tions. For in­stance, Su­per In­dian No. 2, the cover im­age on the ac­com­pa­ny­ing cat­a­log, shows a Santo Domingo Pue­blo buf­falo dancer in full dress, an ice-cream cone in his hand. Some may find the im­age funny, with its in­con­gru­ous sight of a “tra­di­tional” In­dian hold­ing a sweet, frosty icon of the mod­ern world. In her cat­a­log es­say “Painter, Trav­eler, Diplo­mat,” in­dige­nous art scholar Jes­sica Hor­ton writes, “What bet­ter pur­suit for a bur­geon­ing artist in the era of Pop than the big busi­ness of pic­tur­ing In­di­ans? Yet Scholder point­edly took up the sub­ject in re­sis­tance to what he called a horde of ‘ ugly tourists’ tram­pling the re­gion in search of a ro­man­tic In­dian cliché.” The buf­falo dance is not some relic of the past but con­tin­ues at Santo Domingo to­day. So a dancer takes a break, en­joys an ice-cream cone. Big deal. “Tourists love Na­tive dances, cold treats, and the re­prieve of an air-con­di­tioned ho­tel,” Hor­ton con­tin­ues. “But the brochures prom­ise a spec­ta­cle of pure dif­fer­ence, im­ply­ing that ice cream should re­main out­side the frame.”

Hor­ton’s es­say also points to an im­por­tant and lit­tledi s cussed a s pect of t he artist’s l i fe: his ex­ten­sive trav­els abroad and his widerang­ing in­ter­ests, which, in ad­di­tion to su­per In­di­ans, pro­vided him with other sub­ject mat­ter. He was in­ter­ested in oc­cult prac­tices, rit­ual, and cer­e­mony; he was fas­ci­nated by Egyp­tol­ogy and art his­tory and took the grand tour of Europe to ac­quaint him­self with great works of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion. “And for the rest of his life he in­sisted on ev­ery artist’s free­dom to de­pict Egyp­tian pyra­mids, In­di­ans with um­brel­las, and any sub­ject that com­pels the imag­i­na­tion,” Hor­ton writes.

Scholder’s claim that he wasn’t an In­dian artist is an­other seem­ingly con­found­ing state­ment that makes per­fect sense in con­text, since even now, Na­tive artists rarely es­cape the la­bel. Yes, he was a Na­tive artist, but he at­tempted to dis­tance him­self from the des­ig­na­tion, and em­braced aes­thet­ics which had more in com­mon with Pop art than the for­mal Na­tive paint­ing styles pro­moted by Dorothy Dunn’s Stu­dio School. Dunn, an art in­struc­tor, founded the Stu­dio School on the cam­pus of the Santa Fe In­dian School and pro­moted flat, nar­ra­tive paint­ing styles on the themes of Na­tive cul­ture. Scholder drew on art his­tory

in con­ceiv­ing his works, and even if he didn’t adopt older paint­ing styles, his art had cor­re­spon­dences with them in terms of im­agery. You can see this if you com­pare, as Hor­ton points out, his In­di­ans With

Um­brel­las, a litho­graph from 1971 de­pict­ing Plains In­di­ans on horse­back hold­ing um­brel­las, with a 19th­cen­tury ledger draw­ing by Lakota artist Red Hawk that also shows two Na­tives wield­ing um­brel­las, one on horse­back. Scholder’s Seated In­dian With Rif le

(Af­ter Rem­ing­ton) from 1976 places the fig­ure of a Na­tive, sit­ting cross-legged, a ri­fle across his lap, in a set­ting de­void of con­text, sur­rounded by the non-threat­en­ing color pink. It’s a de­con­struc­tion of the type of ro­man­tic im­ages of the west that Fred­eric Rem­ing­ton (1861-1909) made fa­mous.

Scholder also took on art and artists closer to home. His In­dian in Taos Pue­blo from 1970 is a re-en­vi­sion­ing of Ger­ald Cas­sidy’s (1869-1934) Cui Bono from circa 1911, among the New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art’s most rec­og­niz­able works of art. Only in Scholder’s take, the shrouded hu­man fig­ure’s face is en­tirely oblit­er­ated. Dark­ness lies be­hind the hu­man form, from which an amor­phous shape emerges like some­thing from Fran­cis Ba­con (1909-1992).

In his cat­a­log es­say for Su­per In­dian, artist Brad Kahlhamer dis­cusses Scholder’s In­dian por­traits with re­spect to the con­text in which many of them were painted: the era of Viet­nam, civil rights protests, and also psychedelia, pop mu­sic, and rock ’n’ roll. The seated fig­ure in Mad In­dian from 1968 ap­pears as though he’s crouch­ing, en­gaged in a kind of crazy dance. “Mad

In­dian seems painted to a juke­box sound fed by theremin drip — a rare, dreamy, vinyl blend wor­thy of re­peat lis­tens,” Kahlhamer writes. When Scholder was teach­ing at the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can In­dian Arts in the ’60s, the stu­dents or­ga­nized war protests and tack­led the political and so­cial is­sues of their day in their work, but not ev­ery­one sought to get away from the “In­dian” la­bel. Many at IAIA em­braced the In­dian des­ig­na­tion and inevitably brought it into their art. It was a part of him, too, and as he be­gan liv­ing and work­ing in Santa Fe, with its vis­i­ble Na­tive cul­ture, he found he was in­creas­ingly drawn to the al­lure of the Na­tive sub­ject. To what ex­tent his stu­dents in­flu­enced the di­rec­tion of his own work is dif­fi­cult to gauge, but there are sim­i­lar­i­ties, par­tic­u­larly be­tween Scholder and T.C. Cannon, who em­braced over­lap­ping aes­thet­ics. “But as Scholder him­self gained no­to­ri­ety,” writes artist and ac­tivist David Bradley in his es­say “Scholder in the South­west,” “a few for­mer stu­dents re­sented that he never ac­knowl­edged their inf lu­ence on his style and the ex­tent to which he may have ‘bor­rowed’ from their work.”

The in­tent be­hind Scholder’s In­dian se­ries was to chal­lenge the false per­cep­tions of Na­tive Amer­i­cans in Amer­i­can cul­ture, whether it was Hol­ly­wood stereo­types or artis­tic ones. Mati­nee Cow­boy

and In­dian from 1978 shows two an­ti­quated fig­ures, one Na­tive, one white, like Tonto and the Lone Ranger, shak­ing hands, a stream of golden yel­low light be­tween them. But the sub­ject is drawn from cinema, as if to say, “This is not the real world.” Scholder calls at­ten­tion to im­ages that no longer speak to a con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety. “It’s dif­fi­cult to over­come es­tab­lished styles and sub­jects — to use new ap­proaches to ad­vance the work and our un­der­stand­ing of it,” writes artist Theodore Wad­dell in his cat­a­log es­say “A Grand Bal­ance.” “Scholder did this, big time. He not only chal­lenged as­sump­tions but moved the nee­dle of un­der­stand­ing.”

“Su­per In­dian: Fritz Scholder, 1967-1980” is at the Phoenix Art Mu­seum from Feb. 27 to June 5, 1625 N. Cen­tral Ave., Phoenix, Ari­zona, 602-257-1222.

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