Photographer Edward Curtis, the controversial chronicler of Native American life a century ago, is outside his normal habitat.
In the painting “Edward Curtis Paparazzi,” he’s an intrusive voyeur, snapping pictures of Native Americans on horseback at the fictional Black Hills Golf and Country Club. Nearby, a cow and chickens meander in as a buffalo exits — signs of a changing culture.
This is the colorful world of artist Jim Denomie. In wacky yet darkly humorous landscapes, he comments on U.S. history from a Native American perspective. Blending pop culture, current events, spirituality, eroticism and Native histories, there’s so much happening in his art, it’s hard to keep up.
Perhaps that’s why Denomie loves golf.
“Golf is my highest passion, more than painting,” he explained one snowy Friday afternoon, putter in hand, during a break in his home studio in Franconia, Minn. “There is something addictive about accomplishing a goal of getting this ball in the hole.”
He gently taps the ball and sinks it. He plays again. Miss. Once more. Another miss. Then back to painting.
On Friday, Denomie opens “Standing Rock Paintings,” his sixth solo exhibition at Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis. It features nine deeply detailed works depicting the 2016 oil pipeline protests near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and the violence and racism he saw via social media and the accounts of friends and family (he’s Ojibwe) who were there.
His journey into art didn’t ignite until his 40s. But don’t call him a late bloomer.
“I’m a delayed bloomer,” he said.
Rediscovering his spirituality
Born in 1955 on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation near Hayward, Wis., Denomie was raised by a single mom in south Minneapolis.
From an early age he wanted to be an artist. But he dropped out of Minneapolis South High at 16, discouraged in part by a guidance counselor who told him that art was a terrible career choice.
For the next 20 years, Denomie drank and partied. At the same time, he found consistent work in the construction industry, bought a home, married his first wife (1975-85) and had two daughters, Cheryl, 42, and Sheila, 39.
Finally, his drinking caught up with him, so he got sober. In 1990, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, hoping to get out of construction and into the health sciences.
Then he took an art class. Painting professor David Feinberg noticed his work immediately.
“The painting he did was inside a pool room,” Feinberg said. “There was nobody there and there was a pool table. It was a really eerie atmosphere.”
Denomie also had another late-in-life surprise during college: a son, Cody, now 26.
At the same time, he was reconnecting with his cultural background.
He views his personal history as part of a national “assimilation campaign,” with American Indians being relocated to urban centers from reservations.
Denomie’s Ojibwe name is Assiginaak (Red Wing Black Bird), but he didn’t have his naming ceremony until his mid-30s — something that should’ve happened by the time he was 1 year old.
He always felt he had a spiritual presence, but didn’t fully understand it. “I am a spiritual person and it comes out in my work,” he says.
When Bob Cozzolino, a painting curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, first saw Denomie’s paintings, he was struck by the artist’s boldness in confronting deep historical truths, trauma and the ongoing place of Natives in American society, the Midwest in particular.
Denomie wound up graduating with a BFA in studio art and a minor in American Indian studies, which in his mind “qualified me to drive a cab or go back to drywall.”
He did return to construction, but it wound up being the right day job for an artist like him.
On the job
On a drizzly fall morning, dressed in white-speckled blue jeans and a white T-shirt, Denomie held a bread pan overflowing with gooey gypsum in his right hand, while he smoothed a wall with his left, checking for bumps.
Heavy metal blasted from a speaker as gruff, unshaven men drilled holes into fresh planks of wood in a $3 million home on the St. Croix River with 11-foot-ceilings, a four-car-garage and a seemingly endless maze of rooms.
“I enjoy this work,” he said. “I can think about art or other things, but it’s also sculptural — take something that’s a mess and make it into something nice.”
It also helps him stay centered. “You go to these sites with racist, sexist graffiti” scrawled by vandals, he said. “But I’m 6-1, people rarely say anything to your face.”
After an hour’s drive home, he is ready for an evening in his second-floor studio, painting, answering e-mails — and golfing.
Above the staircase is a Denomie landscape depicting deep golden plateaus and blue, yellow and red horses flying across the sky. A table is piled high with colorful reproductions of his paintings.
More than a work space, the studio is a refuge for his obsessive collecting: stereotypical American Indian kitsch dolls and trinkets that he has “rescued.” Masks on one wall. Rabbit sculptures throughout.
Denomie used to have a cat named Basquiat in the studio. The cat had a habit of battling the artist’s palettes, getting his paws wet with paint. Denomie worried that it would eat paint and die, and his wife wouldn’t let it into the house since the couple already have three cats and a dog. So off Basquiat went, to a new home.
“I was so connected to that cat,” Denomie said wistfully. “I loved that cat and he loved me.”
Gentleness — but anger too
His gentleness is apparent in his affection toward both humans and animals. Friend and fellow artist Andrea Carlson, who is also Ojibwe, calls it “sort of disarming.”
People think of him as a happy-go-lucky guy, but there’s far more under the surface, said Carlson, who in 2007 shared an exhibition with him called “New Skins” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
“We were up there [at Mia, doing a panel discussion], and he was like, ‘I paint because I have a lot to say ... I am mad, I’m angry, I’m very, very angry.’
“It’s OK to be angry and externalize that in a painting,” Carlson said.
In “Sustenance,” a self-portrait he made in college, Denomie portrays himself with green skin and a red-winged blackbird on his shoulder. A tiny nude woman approaches with a piece of white bread. In the sky there’s a woman’s face and a shining moon. A box of macaroni and cheese is in the artist’s pocket.
Denomie grew up on mac and cheese and still loves it. It was a form of sustenance, as were the female figures in this painting and countless others.
“I’ve always had women in my life,” he noted, then turned reflective. “I could’ve been a star baseball player if my dad were around.”
Instead, he is an artist who’s metaphorically knocking it out of the park.
Even as he becomes better-known nationally, with a solo show scheduled in Portland, Ore., next winter, family is at the top of his priorities, along with painting and golf, which he often plays with his cousins. The dream is to combine all three.
Carlson said she once observed some of Denomie’s relatives react to his work. “They were looking at all these faces and they were making fun of him. ‘This isn’t a group of Natives — they all have their teeth!’
“Jim was like, ‘That’s surrealism!’
“He is always looking for the funny part. He has this terribleness, this dark sense of humor, but he is teaching something at the same time.”