Like the "ledger art" of his Lakota ancestors, Francis Yellow vividly deploys Plains Indian imagery, but with a modern, ironic edge.
Like archaeologists, many contemporary artists investigate received notions of history and culture through their work. In the past two decades, issues of capitalism and consumerism, slavery and colonization, social and sexual identity, have been fertile territory for artists trying to peel back layers of misinformation and locate the truth.
The work of Francis Yellow, a 58-year-old Lakota, fits this mold. Most of the 20 figurative paintings on paper and canvas, and wood and metal sculpture featured in "Takuskanskan (Power Moving)" at Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis through June 30 dial up the critical volume of wrongdoing against American Indians. Greed, land-grabbing, genocide and the senseless killing of the bison -- a sacred resource to the Lakota -- all are fodder for Yellow.
Most vivid, visually and emotionally, are Yellow's modestly scaled works on paper. He paints in an illustrative, linear style on old stock certificates, letterhead, bill-of-sale receipts, antique maps -- even a postcard of Tonto. His imagery includes Indians on horseback, bison, war, U.S. militia, guns, spears and the American flag, all splayed across the symbols of capitalism.
The figures are outlined with a solid black line and then filled in with high-keyed, saturated hues, often layering one figure over another. Wavy lines attaching the Indians' heads to an animal seemingly floating in space connote the Indians' names (e.g., Spotted Eagle) and underscore the connectedness of man and beast.
Flat and abstracted, the work is a contemporary heir to 19th-century Plains Indian "ledger art," although Yellow disavows a direct connection. In earlier times, Plains Indian men and women drew on buffalo hides in a simple, graphic manner. As hides became scarce and paper more available, the Plains people -- including imprisoned warriors -- began to draw on ledgers.
Yellow's narrative works, sharpened by an ironic edge, are never aggressive. Jewel-toned Indians on horseback, strapped with quivers of arrows and chasing buffalo contrast with the dull, monochromatic bank notes whose seals depict agrarian life, banks, railroads and the military. From the paper's edges emerge a legion of disembodied arms firing muskets or holding the U.S. flag, crucifixes and documents titled "Indian Law," "Treaty" or "Manifest Destiny." In "Talo Kaga," the First National Bank note is pictorially dominated by an orange Indian with blue hair riding a green and yellow horse overlaid by a yellow and brown buffalo.
Particularly sobering are two paintings on antique maps, both titled "American Holocaust." One identifies U.S. military forts while the other identifies Indian reservations in 1883. Over each Yellow has laid a dense network of lines, one depicting figures and animals, the other fallen Indians. Quiet and neutral in coloring, they project a silence that is powerful.
Among American Indians there is something known as Indian humor, and Yellow is skilled in its use. In "Canku Wocanzeka, Ehanni na (Wanna Road Rage Now and Then)," he depicts Indians and non-Indians in two Suburban SUVs, yelling and making obscene hand gestures, on the surface of an antique map of the Central Plains.
On a formal level, the best of Yellow's works are lyrical, even beautiful, in their elimination of detail and transparent layering of forms. His luminous palette and fluid hand animate the surfaces just enough to advance the narrative.
Less successful are two paintings criticizing the Cleveland Indians' use of the controversial cartoon-like logo Chief Wahoo. Made in the late 1990s, the work now seems overly obvious. Two recent, stylistically different paintings lack the visual and critical punch of Yellow's works on paper.
Drawing was an escape
Fundamental to Yellow's artistic practice is Lifeway, the Lakotas' seamless philosophical fabric.
"Lifeway is our system of knowledge and the Law of Relatedness is its core," he writes in his artist statement. "We see all of Life, material and immaterial, as Peoples. Human Beings are only one of a kind of people, and the last ones made at that." Everything, including art, is done for "reciprocal relations," to ensure the "sustainability of life."
Yellow grew up in South Dakota and as a young child was sent to the Immaculate Conception Indian Boarding School -- a process intended to drain him and his classmates of their Indian culture and language.
"I fully appreciate how boarding school's genocidal mission challenged us, as children, to live," he says. "I marvel at how much we met it: drawing and talking Lakota slang and playing and resisting. ... Reading and drawing offered me real respite, real escape, from a real-life dystopian nightmare."