Wild colors, bawdy humor and biting satire are Jim Denomie’s signature in his new paintings at Bockley Gallery through Dec. 13.
The Franconia-based artist has long used his talent to critique the fraught relationship between Euro-Americans and American Indians, but the mural-sized pictures in this exhibit have a special edge.
In “Vatican Cafe,” the Lone Ranger, Tonto and Elvis join a table headed by a fellow wearing a halo and crown of thorns at whose right hand sits a misbehaving priest. Out back a woman is being burned at the stake while hooded Ku Klux Klan members gather around a cross. In “Communion” a priest abuses boarding school children, and in “Untruthful” Tonto accuses his masked friend of lying, to which the Lone Ranger replies, “Get used to it.”
Within the past decade such abrasive images, rendered in gaudy colors with cartoonish features, have earned Denomie, 59, grants from the Bush, McKnight and Eitlejorg foundations. They’ve also found permanent homes at museums in Denver, Phoenix and Indianapolis as well as three Twin Cities museums. This year his work has been included in eight shows around the country, from New York to Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles.
Recently he talked about his life and career.
Q: How does your American Indian heritage influence your work?
A: I grew up a product of the [government’s] assimilation campaign. My grandparents went to boarding school and did not teach my parents the Indian language, customs or traditions. So my parents had less to teach me and my brothers.
We lived on the Lac Courte Oreille reservation — where I was born — for about four years, then moved to Chicago when the government was resettling Indians into urban areas. After about a year my parents split up and my mother moved us to south Minneapolis. I pretty much grew up as a brown American.
It was later in college in the 1990s that I met other people who were going back to learn the pieces that had been left behind. All this feeds into my art. The political and social issues I paint illustrate that history and journey.
Q: How did you get into art?
A: I can remember in kindergarten loving drawing, coloring, painting — anything like that. I liked Life magazine and its images from all around the world. So I wanted to be a photographer and artist.
At Minneapolis South High School I asked to transfer to a school where I could focus on art. That didn’t happen so I dropped out of school and got into partying and addiction. In 1989 I got sober and in 1990 I went to the university and got involved with the Native American community. I took some art classes and that woke up this spirit I’d abandoned 20 years earlier. Five years later I graduated with a BFA in art and a minor in American Indian studies. I figured, well, now I’m qualified to drive cab or go back to doing drywall.
Q: Why do you still work as a drywall finisher?
A: Doing drywall supports and enables me to paint more challenging political stories. They didn’t sell at first but they caught people’s eye, and I got invitations to museums and galleries.
Q: How did 2005 become a breakthrough time?
A: I challenged myself to do one painting every day for a year. I wanted to paint more expressively and looser. One night I got home from work about midnight; I was exhausted and almost skipped my painting that day. But I decided to do a portrait as fast as I could, five minutes. When I got done, it just floored me and I did two more that night. In the morning I realized that if I’d waited until morning different paintings would have come out. I understood that creativity is like a river. You must dip into it now. If you wait you’ll dip into a different river.
Q: You were not raised Catholic, but several of your paintings reference child and sexual abuse by Catholic priests, one of them in a boarding school setting. Why?
A: Pedophile priests have been prominent in Indian communities for centuries. The boarding schools were mostly religious entities. There was sexual abuse and a lot of the children died. The two things they wanted to do were take away the Indian spirituality and make them Christian and remove their language and teach them English.
Q: Your bold Fauvist colors and deliberately crude painting style are very aggressive. Why do you paint that way?
A: Color and humor, that’s what’s important to me. That fast gestural style comes from my sketching and daily painting. I often use pop images so people have a clue or know what I’m trying to say. Mostly I use famous images that just float into my consciousness. Some are from my own imagination and dreams, so it’s a combination of art history and my history.
Q: The top half of your 12-foot-tall diptych “The Creative Oven” has little scenes cribbed from Michelangelo, Henri Rousseau, Picasso, Dali, Tom Wesselmann, Botticelli, Duchamp and American Indian totems. In the middle of it Van Gogh is boxing with Mike Tyson. In the bottom half, people are doing mundane stuff — going fishing, mowing lawns, watching TV. But there’s a guy down there with his head in an oven. Is he committing suicide?
A: No! It’s the creative oven. He’s sticking his head in the oven and it pops up into the creative world. I saw that image in my head for 15 years before I painted it. The bottom panel represents all the responsibilities, distractions, obligations that keep you from putting your head into the creative world.
Q: You often inject humor and comic characters into your work. Why?
A: I’m humorous. I’m intelligent and witty. I think a lot of cultural identity goes into this work intuitively. Indian people are humorous, and storytelling is a cultural practice in many tribes. The stories were teaching history, and humor was a survival tactic.