It’s a wonder that artists ever do anything original, given the myriad styles, techniques and ’isms available for the taking. Popular 20th-century styles like cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Surrealism, Minimalism and Pop don’t begin to exhaust the options. Not to mention performance, installation and a host of media from prints and painting to photography and collage.
Rummaging through that overstuffed tool kit, three American Indian artists have skillfully used modernist techniques to interpret tribal history, legends, exile, displacement and identity issues. Expertly conceived and smartly executed, their work is distinctive for its fusion of Euro-American techniques with native material. Rich in traditional images and history, there is a distinctly contemporary edge to the stunning Pop-style paintings of Star Wallowing Bull at Bockley Gallery and the installations of C. Maxx Stevens and collages of Henry Payer at All My Relations gallery.
The Rosenquist influence
A Twin Cities native, Wallowing Bull now lives in the Fargo-Moorhead area, where he recently fell under the very compatible influence of Pop star painter James Rosenquist, a native of Grand Forks, N.D.
Their first encounter was serendipitous. In 2005 Rosenquist stopped at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, where he was impressed by a show of Wallowing Bull’s colored-pencil drawings and asked how to contact him. After visiting the artist’s nearby studio, Rosenquist urged the younger man to take up painting and offered some pointers. They soon struck up a friendship and, on the evidence of this striking show, Wallowing Bull quickly mastered the unfamiliar medium.
“Mechanistic Renderings” spans nearly a decade and includes both colored-pencil drawings and more recent acrylic paintings. His typical subjects are robotic heads or figures whose tubular, puzzle-like parts suggest the Transformer toys that the artist played with as a kid. They also recall the stylized mechanical figures that French painter Fernand Léger turned out in the 1930s with an added veneer of sleek Art Deco styling. At the same time, their bold colors and sculptural designs are infused with the graphic punch of indigenous Northwest Coast masks and carvings.
In “Crow Spirit,” spinning discs hover in an orange background behind a dramatic warrior with a masklike face, feathered headgear and bandoleer wrapping his chest. The accouterments are traditional Indian gear, but the rendition — in bright fuchsia, lilac, aqua and tangerine — is sizzlingly modern. In “Windigo vs. the Cannibal Man,” a canvas nearly 7 feet wide, a ghoulish character with fur headdress and skull emblem confronts a snake-tongued figure backed by a playing-card queen.
Throughout the show, symbols from Indian and Anglo cultures mingle — roses, cigars, fish, frogs, automobile hood ornaments, insects, playing cards, gas masks, nuts-and-bolts. The marvel is how deftly Wallowing Bull orchestrates this cacophony of cultures into handsome, harmonious images that instantly telegraph their “Indian” identity.
Patterns and portraits
Installation artist Stevens, an associate professor of art at the University of Colorado, Boulder, fills the front half of All My Relations with two metaphoric displays.
The centerpiece of one is a female figure fashioned on a mannequin-torso clad in a paper dress made of Butterick patterns, a popular home-sewing kit. Yards of long braids entwine the dress and puddle on the floor. Encircled by chairs, four of which hold balls of twine, the figure’s costume and hair suggest traditional women’s roles while its authoritative posture points to more worldly options. In front of a black-draped shrine nearby, she has placed four small suitcases on TV tray platforms. The cases hold emblems of traditional life — grasses, feathers, a small house, a toy buffalo. Such enigmatic material is ripe for over-interpretation but best left to the musings of individual viewers.
Payer, a recent MFA graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was trained as a painter but here demonstrates a fine mastery of collage portraits. He alludes to the complex history of his own Ho-Chunk/Winnebago heritage in “Exile,” a painting of a Winnebago-brand bus carrying four Indians, portrayed in historic black-and-white photos, against a background of maps of the country from which their tribes were displaced.
His collage portraits are expertly conceived and smartly executed, their graphic punch enhanced by backgrounds that include a blue-and-white checkerboard, a cutting board, a cupboard door. The portraits are cut from historically significant paper (advertisements, ledgers, cartoons), scraps of words, bits of birch bark and calico, artful ink stains and so on. Medallions of Jefferson, Lincoln and other politicians nod to the uneasy relationship between native people and EuroAmerican interlopers.
Some bits are startling in their racist candor, most notably an 1876 coin emblazoned with the words “One Dead Indian, One Dead Buffalo, One Dollar.” From a distance the collages are handsome; given a close read they are haunting.