A man wearing a T-shirt with the racist Cleveland Indians logo, a "fat cat" businessman, vicious dogs and other creepy characters walk toward a row of Indigenous people protesting at Standing Rock, circa 2019. But in this painting by Ojibwe artist Jim Denomie, one of the protesters snaps a photo of a police dog — and it looks terrified. Finding the humorous moment within the serious scene is a hallmark of Denomie's artwork.

Denomie died in March 2022 at the age of 66 following a battle with cancer. This painting and 59 others are on view in "The Lyrical Artwork of Jim Denomie" at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Intended as a midcareer survey, the show has been in the works since 2019. It opened last Saturday, just two days after Denomie's birthday. He would have been 68.

Denomie was known for using dark humor to deliver biting social commentary from his uniquely Native American perspective. His long list of accolades includes a McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, and his work is in collections at the Walker, Weisman, Mia, Denver Art Museum, and many more locations.

"In that time since Jim passed, it was just about taking care of our family and taking care of his work," said his widow, writer Diane Wilson. "Now the timing feels so right for Jim's work to come back into the world to continue to be part of a conversation that was so important to him around Native history and culture, and art and humor."

To enter the show, visitors walk through Mia's Native arts galleries, passing artworks by Dyani White Hawk and Andrea Carlson, who called Denomie a friend and mentor.

'Delayed bloomer'

Denomie enrolled the University of Minnesota in 1990. He meant to get into the health sciences, but instead stumbled back into art, a passion since high school. Prof. David Feinberg immediately recognized his talent.

Denomie playfully referred to himself as a "delayed bloomer." He learned about his Anishinaabe background later in life, and viewed his personal history as part of a federal "assimilation campaign," as Native Americans were forcibly relocated to urban areas.

"At the same time I was getting back into painting, I was learning history through these American Indian studies courses, so I saw how the reservation system developed through treaties and conquests," Denomie said in a 2019 interview.

Many of Denomie's paintings are something like a "Where's Waldo?" adventure. In "The Creative Oven," 2013, inspired by a dream, the artist sticks his head into an oven, seeking to escape daily life and dive into a surreal, creative space. In the two-panel, surreal landscape that has Minneapolis' skyline in the background, Van Gogh boxes Mike Tyson, Jesus slam dunks a basketball on a hoop affixed to a cross, buffalo fly through the sky, a Native man drives a taxi, and iconic Minneapolis artist Scott Seekins wanders with a fishing pole.

"He would say I'm just an old-fashioned painter, a traditional painter," Mia Curator Nicole Soukup said. "You think like, right, a guy from Shafer telling you he's a painter — you think house painter. But he had a traditional oil painter studio setup, he worked in that American Academy style."

Various sketchbooks under glass cases offer another peek into Denomie's creative process. On one page, viewers see his mind at work. "Cowboys and Indians" turn into "Cowboys and Assimilated Indians" and then transform into Indian figures chasing Custer in Custer's Last Ride.

"My practice has evolved and that's intentionally," Denomie said in a 2019 interview. "I can only work so long in one area and then I get bored, I have to move on. Usually I tell people that it's kind of like cave exploring. You go through this little tunnel and all of a sudden you get to this cave and there are all these great images and it's like holy smokes! And you get into painting and then after a while you've covered all the ground and then there's a little tunnel going off somewhere and you follow it and it opens up into a new cavern and then there's new work. My work has progressed like that."

'The Lyrical Artwork of Jim Denomie'
When: Ends March 24, 2024
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Av. S.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue., Wed., Fri.-Sun.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu.
Cost: Free.
Info: new.artsmia.org or 612-870-3000.