DELIVERED TO THE SCHOOL OF ADVANCED RESEARCH(SAR) AND THE INDIAN ARTS RESEARCH CENTER (IARC) SANTA FE , NEW MEXICO
THURSDAY, AUGUST 5TH, 2010
AS THE DUBIN RESEARCH FELLOW AT THE INDIAN ARTS RESEARCH CENTER, SUMMER 2010
I want to begin by saying good evening to all of you and thank you for attending this event tonight. I want to personally thank the School of Advanced Research and the Indian Arts Research Center for providing me the challenge of the Dubin fellowship, which I interpreted as an opportunity for a studio artist to engage their subject outside the confines of the usual four-white walls of the studio. I wish to recognize our distinguished benefactors, Ronald and Susan Dubin for their support, your belief in the power of the arts make great things happen.
I wish to recognize the support of the team at the IARC, Cynthia Chavez-Lamar, Elysia Poon, Daniel Kurnit, Jennifer Day and Laura Ellis. And the day would not be complete with out recognizing the indispensible-dude wisdom of Mr. Sylvanus Paul and photographer, Jason Ordaz.
The IARC fellowship is a unique situation. As I scan the field of artists- opportunities this quiet residency, while limited to native artists, needs to stand out because of its relationship to the one-of-a-kind SAR Scholars program. I have logged in many hours now listening and talking with my scholar colleagues whose breadth of interests and methodologies fascinate me. As the final lecture of the summer session, I have had the opportunity to attend each of the colloquium and I am at odds with the number of overlaps in our work and thinking. I am reminded that there is a relationship between our respective fields of art, anthropology and history and I will wait for a darker hour to address the issue of the relationships between Native peoples and anthropologists.
In the art-world we are often critical and self -critical for relying on loose methodologies, where some often shop their facts like cable news allows us to shop our opinions. I say to them , in the world of job descriptions, a protest singer does more than just sing a protest song. The artist is often described as the bricoleur making bricolages. A handy-person cobbling together a range of ideas, images, materials, and contexts. The bricoleur process is often associated with the word, “chaotic,” an association that I have not always felt truly represents my relationship to studio practice and my relationship to my subject.
As a teacher, I am often stumped when an art student tells me they don’t know what to do and they dont know what their work is about. I always think, art must come from somewhere.
It is not a stretch for me to believe the IARC stories of how our Pueblo, Hopi, Zuni or Navajo elders might actually have cried in the presence of the work in the IARC vaults. The connection between them and the objects goes beyond any formalism. There is a phenomenological event that has taken place and it is an issue of legacies and cultural awareness, two subjects that I wish to address tonight.
TWO INTRO TEXTS: THE UNTRACEABLE PRESENT AND A QUOTE BY BEATRICE MEDICINE, ANTHROPOLOGIST
In narrative traditions, to tell the story of tragedy one must always begin by telling the ending first. I once believed that the weight of such expectations functioned as a cultural given for the artist of Native American descent. Its rules stated that we cry for a vision and place ourselves in a single grand narrative of history and representation.
...but the laughter of Coyote saturated and filled our daily lives. It echoed through the lecture halls of histories and it was so powerful and it was so distracting that I forgot my place in linear time and now I work from an untraceable present.
It is followed with this: “There are three dilemmas facing the contemporary native artist. 1)Holding a tribal identity in the face of a culture driven by individualism. 2) The conflict between market ethics and values and tribal ethics and values. 3.) The dilemma of function or the role of the sacred and the secular in the content of tribal arts.” ... late Dakota Sioux anthropologist, Beatrice Medicine. To start it is important to tell the story of my public school experience of the event titled: “show-and-tell,” because the climate of tolerance and civil rights for people of color was much different in the early 1970s when I was in grade school then it is today and the state of Iowa was not exempt. I come from a family of seven children and we were the only native family in a town 50 miles from the my fathers tribe. On weekends we often attended Meskwaki and Ho-Chunk ceremonies and functions. Afterwards my parents told us, “When you go back to school on Monday, and they ask you to do show-and-tell, don’t speak about anything that you have done this weekend, because the whiteman does not understand the Indian, and if you tell them anything, the first thing they will do is take it all away.”
I accepted this rule without question yet realized that the worlds I come from, with all my relations, was special and I wanted to do something. Then in early adolescence I found the loophole in my parents law: They may have said “You cannot speak......” but they never said “...and you cannot draw or paint either.” This realization lead me to painting.
I have been making white monochrome paintings from 1991 to 2008. This work evolved from abstract-field painting to a narrative format using my own shadow and the shadows from plants and objects. Other objects include a folk-art coyote mask I purchased in Mexico and a wolf dancer-figurine I purchased at the Pequot pow-wow in Connecticut. In the white paintings I am using a translucent acrylic paint medium and white gesso, I lay shadows upon shadows over-and-under thin veils of medium. This layering of the figurative shadows creates motion and establishes a field effect, where the painting acts as a window to deep space and creates a suspension of shadows in a luminous and mute tense-present, a visual condition I attribute to my parents law. I considered this a “recovery-project” where the “folk objects” shadow is made palpable and re-animated in the face of its obscurity. I wanted to retake the “folk object” and activate it, I wanted it to return to a context where one could not possess the object, but viewed it in a space where it appears to act in accord of its own terms.
Part II BOOKS
In the Ho-Chunk Nation you are not considered an adult until your 30th birthday. Up until that day the elders and the community will excuse your transgressions because of youth. After 30 you are considered responsible for everything you do. I turned 30 somewhere in the 90’s and had opportunities to use my work for social-action, I began researching the Native American trickster, Coyote, and had begun to use storytelling, myth-making and performance in my work. These formats allowed me greater specificity and represented an awakening for me. Throughout all of this I never felt that I had broken my parents law of silence, as their law was intended to teach us children the reality of our need for both cultural and self-awareness and cultural and self-preservation. I internalized their teachings by the age of 30, which meant I was to provide stewardship over the use of our cultural-information and cultural-awareness in all the worlds I now travel in. This shift evolved into artist books where I had realized that the seconds and spaces created in physically sequencing and pacing pages and images could became part of my content; an intangible by-product had become form.
The books are unique transparent-objects that present a non-linear approach to telling a story. my last major book: The Meaning of Art,” from 2002 begins as a rumination on the subject of speed and acculturation in our media age. It opens with popular notions of the length of a native mans hair with a reference to the Edward Curtis photographs of Native Americans. Using myself as the model I posed for the photograph in the sweeping light as Edward Curtis posed his subjects. I photographed myself before and after the haircut I had to remove my ponytail. The narrative then transitions into an incantation for grace by unseen forces stating:
“I long to believe your interventions will guide the outcome of my actions”
The text and pacing are assembled around a news story regarding the discovery of a large natural gas field in Siberia and are integrated with stories told to me by my parents and relatives. Television is referenced as the staging site for historical recall, resistance, complicity and in the bricoleur tradition: chaos.
The beginning text reads:
A group of reindeer herders indigenous to Siberia have managed to retain their culture and traditions through the rise and fall of communism. Yesterday, the largest natural gas field in the old Soviet Union was discovered under their homeland.
Industry stands poised to move in
capitalism with its speed of images
and information will surely impact their culture.
In this new process of assimilation
no one will die as painfully
or as forcefully as when they died the first time.
In this new process of assimilation
the future does not exist and they will not see themselves
as anything more than ghosts.
In this new process of assimilation
death will be slow and exciting because everything
will be new and they will desire it just so.
The image in page four is taken from the killing fields of Wounded Knee, it is Chief Bigfoot’s body lying frozen in the snow. Years ago,in the late 1980’s and early 90s’ at the peak of the culture wars and muti-culturalism, I had the opportunity to host the writer, bell hooks, at IAIA, in her lecture she said, “I applaud the 1993 Whitney Biennial’s attempt at inclusion, but at no time in any of the work is whiteness not at the center.” My interest in this image was prompted by this statement as this image possesses the maximum cultural currency within Indian country. This is martyrdom, and at the time I wanted to make a work that could possess solely redness at its center.
The book continues its mantra, I long to believe your intervention will guide the outcome of my actions and ends with the sentence from my Mother, “... anything an Indian does, he does for a reason.”
These books are prompted through interactions and events taking place in the world and events around me. By beginning this book with the example of the length of a native mans hair, I was responding to news of a fundamental difference between my parents tribal nations. While Ho-Chunk men do grow long hair,, Meskwaki men do not. by displaying my actual cut-off ponytail, I was not “giving-in” as one white viewer had accused me of, I was actually returning to something traditional.
Part III: THE BLACK PAINTINGS ON GLASS
In the academic year of 2008-09 I began a full-year sabbatical, at the beginning of this period my father passed away after a three-year battle with lymphoma, he was my last surviving parent. I was informed of my fathers end-stage condition in June of 2008 when the doctors told me, “This will be a life-ending event.” My father’s decision was to spend his last days in home hospice care and the tasks of day-to-day assistance were shared by my family and the hospice center. On July 25th, the seventh week of hospice, he had reached his end. I was his last caregiver.
On August 20, 2009 the New York Times ran an article on the subject of palliative care specialists and hospices. The article brought many points back to light. End-stage cancer requires a regiment of powerful drugs that regulate pain but sedate the patient . It is painful to watch your relative fade and families find it is necessary to maintain a round-the-clock vigil to catch them in moments of alertness and clarity. I had slept on the couch nightly next to my fathers hospice bed as night time often brings the patient the most discomfort. The subject of my fathers dreams became disturbing to him. In one instance my father dreams he is picking up the daily newspaper, as he lifts it up to his face it vanishes from his hands. In another dream he places his money into his pockets and in the next second it is not there anymore. It was as if his mind was preparing him for the journey that lay ahead and all worldly items, the news of the day and the money in his pocket would have no value anymore. In those long nights when he awoke he needed assistance and family presence to calm him. It is necessary to understand-that these experiences occurred, as it is a catalyst to my recent work. The variables include both the subject of night and the singular quality of dream images in unimaginable circumstance.
The paintings on glass began in the spring of 2009. I think of this work as the phenomena of singularities; black holes and vortexes. They are narratives into which the American flag, painted as an object, hovers in an untraceable-space draped over an unknown form. Veteran status figures prominently in Native American communities and my choice of the flag references my fathers status as a veteran of the Korean War. Yet without that knowledge the flag has the sense of a figure stand-in and memorial. When combined with the iconic coyote mask or the coyote figure, in a format of black and white realism, they sparked for me an ambivalence and a compelling investigation of painted surfaces and singular objects.
The glass-on-shelf format is a hybrid of my paintings and my transparent books in plexi-glass. They are circles and ovals presented on a shelf- leaning against the wall and allude to instability and fragility. As objects they are supported by their own weight and propped, a very distant homage to the early process pieces of Richard Serra. Some are variable editions: meaning one image can be painted almost identically to the last. They are paired with each other or with objects. Some are sandwiched behind another piece of glass to give them a specimen quality and they are painted in either a clear context-less space or in a space of absolute black. The glass is problematic. It is rigid and defies the organic quality of canvas. It appears temporal as an object because it is less a ground and more a surface where the brush stroke and the paint body lay exposed and vulnerable.
In the most recent work, done prior to my arrival here at the IARC, I began to work less from photographs as I longed for the performative/interactive give-and-take of additive/subtractive painting. The idea of stacked horizons evolved out of the endless hours involved in painting the stripes of the American flag.
My project for the Dubin Fellowship arrived on the closure of the black paintings on glass. One can never know or control the events that will occur in our own lifetimes, My last year was filled with interruption and family triage. I lost my father two years ago and in February of this year I lost my younger sister, who is also a veteran. Without this context I was afraid that this transition from ethereal white paintings of shadows to narrative photorealist fabrications from toys and objects, in black and white...on glass as opposed to linen would be too abrupt. I have ideas I want to believe that explain this shift. One posits that my conception of space is tied to notions of my relationship to maternal and paternal sources. Whenever I work from knowledge of my parents in my paintings, for my fathers nation, the Meskwaki I go photographic. When I am thinking of my mother and the Ho-Chunk nation I go atmospheric. But as we say in the studios of RISD, sometimes creating and evaluating are separate activities. The closeness of the events that precipitated the changes in my work are still very real for me and to say, “ it-is-this,” or “it-is-that,” seems premature. In many ways the events and the changes reflected in my work have made me feel like I have either just begun or I have been charged-by-life to start all-over again.