Category

contemporary art

Nicholas Galanin: Layers and Splits

Nicolas Galanin, "Ism #1," 2013. 19" x 32", digital photographic print. Image courtesy of the artist

Nicholas Galanin, “Ism #1,” 2013. 19″ x 32″, digital photographic print. Image courtesy of the artist

At the end of last month, I heard Dr. Christopher Green give a presentation that included some works of art by Nicholas Galanin, who is a Tlingtit-Unanagax contemporary artist. I was particularly struck by the digital photographic print Ism #1, which features the famous icon of Christ from the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai. However, in Galanin’s image, the face of Jesus has been covered with a Tlingit shaman’s mask (and not an actual shaman’s mask, which the Tlingit consider personal and not for public display, but a replica of a shaman’s mask).1 By creating a digital compilation of an original Byzantine painting with a photograph of a replica of a Tlingit mask (a replica made by Don Lelooska Smith of Cherokee heritage), Galanin’s work of art is full of layers that raise attention to authenticity, originality, appropriation and even theft.2 Galanin explained Ism #1 further in a quote on the Eazel website:

“The shaman’s mask over the crucified Christ can be read as theft of Indigenous culture and experience by a non-Indigenous community. This is also a strategy to use iconography understandable to a Eurocentric culture to make clear the level of suffering endured by carriers of Indigenous culture, and to elevate the importance and significance of the shaman’s mask to this audience.”

The two represented objects refer to complicated histories of destruction and disturbance. The Mount Sinai icon is a rare example of Byzantine art from the 6th century, because it pre-dates the period of iconoclasm (icon destruction) that took place in the 8th and 9th centuries. Because this icon was located at a remote location on a peninsula near the Red Sea, it escaped iconoclastic destruction. And yet, the original Tlingit shaman’s mask, which Galanin references through a secular copy, was also in a forested location with restricted access. It was located at a Tlingit shaman’s grave (at the area called Point Lena, Alaska), but it did not escape disturbance: it was “collected” (i.e. stolen) by George Emmons in 1919. The mask was located in the National Museum of the American Indian in the last half of the 20th century, only to be repatriated in 2003.1

Christ, Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai, 6th century. 33.1 x 19.4 in (84 x 45.5 cm, encaustic painting (pigments and wax). Image courtesy Wikipedia

Christ, Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai, 6th century. 33.1 x 19.4 in (84 x 45.5 cm, encaustic painting (pigments and wax). Image courtesy Wikipedia

The meaning of the icon clearly has been altered by the addition of the Tlingit mask. In the original icon, Jesus’s face is asymmetrical: his right side (viewer’s left) is welcoming and calm, whereas his left side (viewer’s right) has harsher shadows and is pulled into a sneer. (If you want to see how differently the sides appear, check out these digital mockups of how the full faces would appear if the sides were symmetrical.) Through this split composition, the icon expresses the dual nature of Jesus Christ’s roles, as both a loving Savior for the righteous and a harsh Judge for the wicked.

I think that the composition of Christ’s face is also applicable to the context of the Christian missionaries interacting with Indigenous people during the period of Western expansion. Galanin explains, “During colonization and settlement, Christian missionaries functioned as a wedge used to split apart Indigenous communities.” As such, for those viewers who are familiar with this (hidden) split face, it can can serve as a reminder of Christianity’s divisive role in history. The visual layering even recalls this sense of the past, with the split face serving as the “older” first layer. I think that a hope of rectification and restitution is suggested by superimposing a symmetrical, visually-balanced mask on top of this asymmetrical face, especially with the knowledge that the original mask was repatriated to the Tlingit in 2003. And yet, by having these two cultures bound together within Galanin’s digital photomontage, the layered pull between the past and present conveys that an imbalance still exists today.

Nicolas Galanin, Things Are Looking Native, Native's Looking Whiter, 2012. Giclée print, 15.5" x 20.25"

Nicholas Galanin, “Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter,” 2012. Giclée print, 15.5″ x 20.25″. Image courtesy of the artist

This pull between past, present, and future is also seen in Galanin’s photographic image Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter (shown above). The past is suggested with the photograph on the left, which comes from a photograph of a Hopi-Tewa woman that was taken in the early 20th century by Edward Curtis. The butterfly whorl hairstyle (sometimes described as “squash blossom”) was worn by unmarried Hopi women. The older photograph is juxtaposed with a promotional photograph on the right of actor Carrie Fisher as the character Princess Leia from “Star Wars.” This juxtaposition references contemporary pop culture but also hints at the past and future too, with reference to a futuristic society that lived “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

Just with the photograph of Ism #1, references to destruction and disturbance are compounded in this photographic print. In the early 20th century, when the controversial artist Edward Curtis was taking his photographs, the US government was involved efforts to “westernize” Indigenous communities and establish legislation and reservation policies that would restrict Indigenous rights. These actions included setting up boarding schools that worked to eradicate traditional Indigenous cultures and languages. Edward Curtis’s work, through the sense of false authenticity conveyed through the photographic medium, supported what Galanin calls “the national fantasy that Indigenous people and ways of life were disappearing. The imagery created was often staged with props Curtis carried with him, to construct photos that would eventually be used as a standard for disappearing tradition and authenticity.” With this context of destruction and cultural disturbance in mind, a Star Wars fan can’t help but think of the destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet, Alderaan, in “Episode IV: A New Hope” due to the machinations of the Galactic Empire.

Juxtaposing these images draws attention to issues of cultural appropriation and inaccurate constructs. Galanin explains on his Flickr portfolio, “In borrowing from Indigenous aesthetics, the image projects settler claims to Indigenous culture into the future. The title speaks to consumer culture’s desire to claim ‘Native inspired’ looks, while simultaneously refusing Indigenous people the agency to define Indigenous culture in an increasingly hybrid world. I point out that while non-Native ‘things’ look Native to the non-Natives who produce them, Natives continue to be held to historical constructs of Native-ness devised by non-Natives.” The horizontal split between the images creates visual competition, which emphasizes that these historical constructs for Natives still exist today. I appreciate that the faces of the figures are aligned as closely as possible, however, since that suggests to me that Native and non-Native cultures have the potential to come together in a balanced and respectful way.

(And on a side note, First Nation K’ómox artist Andy Everson includes references to Star Wars in his work as a way to reference dichotomies in life and reflect on cultural heritage. Andy was photographed in an Imperial Stormtrooper costume, covered with formline designs, by Navajo artist Will Wilson for his ongoing photographic project Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX). You can learn more about the work of these two artists here.)

I look forward to following Nicholas Galanin’s work! His “Never Forget” installation from 2021 also caught my attention, as it raises related questions about past, present, commodification and commercialism (even a different type of reference to Hollywood!), but directly and forthrightly addresses settler land occupation.

1 Christopher Green presentation at Central Washington University, April 30, 2021.

2 Ibid. I appreciate that Christopher Green drew attention to these layers specifically in his presentation.

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John Currin’s “Thanksgiving” and Stretched Figures

Forget Norman Rockwell’s “Thanksgiving” as the iconic image for your 2020 holiday season. This uniquely terrible year needs a different painting and aesthetic, and I think John Currin’s “Thanksgiving” (2003) better fits the bill.

John Currin, "Thanksgiving," 2013. Oil on canvas, approx. 68" x 53". Tate

John Currin, “Thanksgiving,” 2013. Oil on canvas, approx. 68″ x 53″. Tate

As is typical in Currin’s art, this painting is a composite of several earlier artistic forms. For example, the elongated and intertwined figures recall Mannerist paintings, while the still life in the foreground suggests the vanitas images of the Dutch Baroque. And in a year in which so much has been upended and confusing, this bizarre pastiche of styles seems appropriate. Even the contradiction of a feast that is being undertaken by emaciated figures seems unsurprising this year. Robert Rosenblum noted that Currin’s art looks “both commonplace and fantastic” which reminds me of how this year has been terribly commonplace (for the millions of people who have stayed at home) and also fantastic in how its dystopian impact on the world seems to come from the realm of science fiction.

I’ve also thought about how this painting can serve as a reminder of those who have lost loved ones due to the virus, with the figures dressed in somber clothing, the limited color palette, and the wilted leaves in the vase. Even the pallid color of the uncooked turkey suggests death.

In the Mannerist period, the elongated and distorted figures were “mannered” in a way that suggested elegance and beauty. I’ve been thinking about how these “stretched” figures can be taken beyond the realm of aesthetics, and can be seen as metaphors for how so many people have been financially and emotionally stretched this year. And in the context of Thanksgiving, I’ve also been thinking about how many people are stretched between gratitude and grief this year. I’m reminded of a quote that Francis Weller said in an interview:

“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.”

So as I look at Currin’s painting, I see a mixture of a lot of things. I think about how I myself can be stretched, but this can lead me to having more compassion and growth. And I hope that one of the lasting effects of 2020 will be a greater rise in compassion and empathy.

When I learned that Currin was inspired to finish “Thanksgiving’ after his wife became pregnant, I thought of it in an entirely new way. His wife Rachel served as the model and John Currin views this painting as an allegory of her pregnancy, since it took nine months to finish. So while this image may seem bizarre, it can also suggest hopeful anticipation for the future, and I hope that positive expression can carry us forward to better times.

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Josiah McElheny’s “From an Historical Anecdote About Fashion”

I haven’t been blogging on here this summer, but that is not to say that I haven’t been busy or thinking about art. The pandemic has forced me to spend the summer prepping online material for the three classes that I will be teaching this Fall quarter. I’ve been thinking about art every day, as I record lecture videos while seated at my desk. I’ve often chuckled at my bizarre sense of fashion during this videos, which is a professional look from the waist up, but a casual look from the waist down with flip flops or exercise pants hidden from the camera’s view.

Josiah McElheny, “From An Historical Anecdote About Fashion,” 2000. Blown glass objects and display case, overall: 67 7/8 × 120 × 27 5/16in. (172.4 × 304.8 × 69.4 cm). Whitney Museum of Art

Perhaps in some ways that’s why I have been drawn to Josiah McElheny’s “From an Historical Anecdote About Fashion” during this pandemic. I miss having a reason to get dressed up in fancy clothes, and I miss having the free time to watch films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. McElheny explains in an ART:21 documentary (at 40:38 in this video) that he was looking to draw parallels with “the connection between a glass factory and the designs of Christian Dior.”

The “historical anecdote” that served as inspiration for McElheny was regarding the 1952 Venice Biennale. That year, the glass design company owned by Paolo Venini entered a display of vases that were based off of the haute couture fashions which Ginette Gagnous Venini, the owner’s wife, wore when she visited the factory.2 Ginette was very involved in the business and was said to have been seen by those in the furnace room whenever she ascended or descended the stairs to and from the office.

Josiah McElheny, detail from “From An Historical Anecdote About Fashion,” 2000. Blown glass objects and display case, overall: 67 7/8 × 120 × 27 5/16in. (172.4 × 304.8 × 69.4 cm). Whitney Museum of Art

Josiah McElheny, detail from “From An Historical Anecdote About Fashion,” 2000. Blown glass objects and display case, overall: 67 7/8 × 120 × 27 5/16in. (172.4 × 304.8 × 69.4 cm). Whitney Museum of Art

McElheny’s clothes give off a definite sense of 1950s fashion, especially with the wasp waists and several voluminous skirts. The excessive use of fabric in Dior “New Look” line drew a contrast with the restricted use of fabrics during the World War era.1 And so maybe now, in a time when I feel more restricted in my behavior, these voluminous dresses seem like an excessive and unattainable luxury.

Another thing that I love about McElheny’s pieces is that they suggest the female form that would be wearing the clothing. The glass objects give off a sense of presence and absence, since the figures’ forms are visible through the clothing but also conspicuously lack any anatomical features outside of the dresses themselves. Likewise, the translucent glass seems present and also absent. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to these works of art as I’m working to create an online class: I’m constructing a virtual “presence” for myself while also keenly aware of how I am absent from the physical classroom. Or perhaps I’m also drawn to the fragility of the glass medium, since the pandemic has caused me to think more about the fragility of human life and health. All depressing thoughts aside, I wish that quarantine and online teaching could be as carefree and elegant as these references to haute couture!

1 Robin Updike, “Fashion and Glass Merge With Imagination In Show At Henry,” Seattle Times (March 17, 1999). Available online: https://archive.seattletimes.com/archive/?date=19990317&slug=2949785 

2 The idea of designing a bottle to look like a dress wasn’t completely new to the Vanini factory. In 1947 a design was produced for Venini which decorated bottles with lace, to suggest the body of a woman or a mannequin in 19th-century dress. See Marino Barovier and Carla Sonego, eds., Paolo Venini and His Furnace, Skira Editore (2016), pp. 83-84. Available online: http://www.showonshow.com/skira/2017/venini/pressdocs/PVenini_layout_UK.pdf

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A Recent Addition to “The World Stage: Brazil”

Kehinde Wiley, "Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil," 2017. Oil on canvas.

Kehinde Wiley, “Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil,” 2017. Oil on canvas. Photo taken by the author

Last month I visited the Portland Art Museum and saw a painting by Kehinde Wiley that I hadn’t seen before. This painting is currently on display as a loan from the collection of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer, major philanthropists in the area (Harold passed away in 2011). I already was familiar with Wiley’s series called The World Stage that feature people from countries around the world, but I wasn’t familiar with this one that comes from the Brazil installment of The World Stage. And as I’ve studied this work, I realized that this painting was made fairly recently, in 2017, almost ten years after the initial series was begun and exhibited. The painting isn’t listed as part of Wiley’s Brazil series, and I wonder why Wiley decided to create this painting so much later. Did he have all of the source material and photos of the model from before, but simply ran out of time to start this painting until almost a decade later?

Wiley began this project through a residency in Rio de Janeiro in March 2008 and exhibited the installation in 2009. At the time, a short book was published with two essays and images of the exhibition painting, and similar books were produced for other installments of The World Stage. The exhibition aimed to draw attention to issues of Afro-Brazilian identity and the complex and problematic social issues created due to the history of slavery and colonialism in Brazil. As a result, Wiley’s Afro-Brazilian figures are positioned in compositions that are reminiscent of famous paintings and monuments in Brazilian culture. Here are a few examples:

  • Wiley’s painting “Omen Negro (Black Man)” refers to a watercolor by the German artist Zacharias Wagener (who was in Brazil when the Dutch were there). Ironically, Wagener’s watercolor is actually a copy of another painting titled “African Man” by Albert Eckhout, so there are multiply layers of copying and appropriation that are taking place. Furthermore, the title of this work seems have layers of appropriation and inadvertent spelling corruption: Wiley’s phrase “Omen Negro” is a corruption of Wagener’s title “Omem Negro,” which itself is a corruption of the accurate Portuguese phrase “homem negro” (“black man”).
  • Wiley’s painting “Marechal Floriano Peixoto” copies the composition of a monument in Cindelândia’s public square in Rio de Janiero. The monument honors the second president of the Republic, Floriano Peixoto, but these two particular figures represent the indigenous people of Brazil. The inclusion of these active, strong figures and their composition alludes to the colonial presence in Brazil and the subjugation of the native presence by the Portuguese. Other allegorical figures in the monument recognize the African, Portuguese, and Catholic aspects of Brazilian history.
  • Wiley’s “Alegoria a Lei do Ventre Livre” is inspired by a gesso sculpture by A. D. Bressae of the same title. Kimberly Cleveland explains that this allegorical figure is an reference to the 1871 law which declared that the children who were born to slave parents would be free. She writes, “The irony of this law is suggested in the less-than-enthusiastic expression of Wiley’s model,” but absent from the original, nineteenth-century sculpture” of a smiling boy.1
  • Wiley has multiple paintings (see one, two and three) dedicated to Alberto Santos Dumont, an innovator in aviation. The compositions for these paintings come from a monument honoring Dumont, located outside of the Dumont airport in Rio.

The influence of Brazilian monuments on the composition brings me back to the new Kehinde Wiley addition to this series: this 2017 painting is inspired by a monument of Cuauhtemoc that is located in the Parque do Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro.

Left: Kehinde Wiley, "Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil," 2017. Right: Monument to the Indio Cuauhtemoc in Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Left: Kehinde Wiley, “Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil,” 2017 (photo taken by the author). Right: Monument to the Indio Cuauhtemoc in Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy Wikipedia

The monument itself is a bizarre connection to Brazil, because is quite oblique. The statue is in Brazil because it was a gift from Mexico in 1922, to recognize the 100th anniversary of the Brazilians’ independence from Portugal in 1822. The statue depicts Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor, who ruled between 1520-1521 and then was executed by the Spanish. Perhaps there is a loose parallel between the end of an indigenous empire and the end of a colonial period, but it is a little bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, the sculpture is seen as a symbol of friendship between Mexico and Brazil.

By assuming the same composition as the Cuauhtemoc sculpture in Brazil, which is itself a copy of an original 1887 sculpture by Miguel Noreña in Mexico City, Wiley’s painting continues to add layers of appropriation and meaning. One theme is of connections and friendships between countries, since Wiley, as an American painter, took temporary residence in Brazil and painted Brazilian subjects. By depicting an Afro-Brazilian model, Wiley also touches on colonial history and those who were conquered and subjugated by Europeans, Africans and Aztecs alike.

Kehinde Wiley, detail of "Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil," 2017. Oil on canvas

Kehinde Wiley, detail of “Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil,” 2017. Oil on canvas. Photo taken by the author

Kehinde Wiley, detail of "Indio Cuauhtemoc-The World Stage, Brazil," 2017. Oil on canvas

Kehinde Wiley, detail of “Indio Cuauhtemoc: The World Stage, Brazil,” 2017. Oil on canvas. Photo taken by the author

The casual clothing of Wiley’s subject allude to commodifications by referencing popular (American) fashion and culture. In addition, the bright colors and thriving flowers also connect to Western commodification, suggesting how “the exotic” is a Western construct that has been fetishized and desired. The inspiration for at least one backgrounds in the series came from textiles found at the Sahara market in Rio, and perhaps this design may have been found in a similar place.2 I noticed that Wiley used this same floral background in a study for a painting called “Sidney da Rodra, Jr.” (2008), but it doesn’t appear in the final version, and a detailed image of this same floral background appears as an unlabeled plate at the beginning of the World Series: Brazil book.So Wiley was thinking about this background during this project and studying it, even though this painting wasn’t made (or perhaps finished?) until 2017.

The layered appearance of human figures and decorative patterns in Wiley’s paintings are an appropriate visual reminder of the layers of meaning and appropriation. Typically, Wiley’s paintings have a few elements from the background which extend out of their pattern to partially cover the clothing of the subject. This can be seen best on the t-shirt and the shorts of the “Indio Cuauhtemoc” figure by Wiley, which are partially covered with flowers. Such layers remind us that, despite the real life issues that Wiley addresses, he has presented them to us in a fictive environment to remind us that all the world is a stage and his “streetcast” models are actors.

1 Kimberly Cleveland, “Kehinde Wiley’s Brazil: The Past Against the Future” in Kehinde Wiley: The World Stage: Brazil by Kehinde Wiley (Roberts & Tilton, 2009), 26.

2 Kehinde Wiley, Kehinde Wiley: The World Stage: Brazil (Roberts & Tilton, 2009), 12.

3 Ibid., 4, 45.

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Wiley and Morris at the St Louis Art Museum

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 11.28.59 AM

The radio silence on my blog has been deafening for me, but luckily I’ve been able to do some writing over the past few months. The William Morris Society in the United States contacted me a few months ago, after reading my 2016 post on Kehinde Wiley and William Morris. I expanded this initial post into a new one for their “News from Anywhere” webpage with updated information about a current Kehinde Wiley show at the Saint Louis Art Museum. And check out the gorgeous catalog cover for the exhibition!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.