Chris Pappan explores new media and loses none of his complexity

As so often happens, life takes you on a detour and before you know it half a year has gone by without us showing this blog any love. For that we’re sorry. A lot of exciting stuff has happened in the art world in the meantime and my drafts folder is full of unfinished reports on events and exhibitions from the past summer that never made it onto the blog. 

Let’s see if we can get this ol’ blog back on track, shall we?

It´s no secret that Kiva Gallery are big fans of Chris Pappan, so we thought it worthwhile to give a little recap on what Mr. Pappan has been up to as of late. It’s been a busy summer for Pappan. He has been involved in two big projects in his hometown Chicago. Both projects are noteworthy insofar as they allowed Pappan to work with media that are new to his practice and on a bigger scale than usual. Pappan is, of course, famous for his precise ledger drawings with a twist – they are often slightly deformed and perspectivally askew (we’ve written about that at length here). It’s exhilarating to see what happens to Pappan’s core aesthetic when he tries his hand at a new medium. Both of Pappan’s Chicago projects were developed in dialogue with the city. The first was a collaboration with The Floating Museum – a Chicago initiative that aims to turn sites of Chicago into art spaces. For this project they utilized the Green Line of the city’s transit system. The idea was that passengers could view site specific art from the train while in motion but also engage with new cultural spaces through the various stops along the line. In his contribution, Pappan collaborated with artist Monica Rickert-Bolter to construct a 25-foot inflatable sculpture entitled Founders. The sculpture consists of the heads of four non-white figures who have been of historical importance for the city of Chicago. The figures are Harold Washington – the first black mayor in any American city; Jean Baptiste DuSable –  the founder of Chicago; his wife Kitihawa; and a bust by African American artist William Artis.

 

I think the concept of inflation is what makes the sculpture line up so neatly with Pappan´s previous preoccupation with the idea of distortion. In his ledger drawings, Pappan uses visual deformation in his depictions of sometimes stereotypical Native American imagery to suggest that what we see is a distorted truth. The meaning is conveyed by the technique he chooses. Similarly, in Founders, much conceptual weight is imparted through the very act of inflation. The stated ambition of Founders was to highlight historical figures that elevate the stories of indigenous people and people of color, honoring the often-overlooked roles they’ve had in shaping our contemporary world. 

The effect and signification would not have been the same had the sculpture been executed in another medium. Consider a stone statue of the same four figures. The very medium would suggest something rigid – perhaps that the figures are eternally present to the public. However one wishes it be so, it could hardly be said to be an accurate account of their historical standing. A sculpture that has to be inflated, on the other hand, conveys that it takes an effort for it to get into public view. Moreover, it lends an air of impermanence and fragility to the sculpture that underscores how easily non-white people fall out of historical view. 

Pappan’s other Chicago-specific project was conceived within the frame of Expo Chicago – an art event taking place in September each year. A part of Expo consisted of Override – a project that let artists take over billboards throughout the city. Pappan’s contribution was Ghost of Route 66 – an image of three central Native American figures wrapped in blankets, flanked by two outlined (ghostly) repetitions of the central figures. 

The large image looks completely awesome against the backdrop of Chicago’s high-rises and office buildings. But taking into account the large, commercial format of a billboard, it feels inadequate to dismiss the image with an Instagram-friendly “awesome!”.  

Seeing three stoic Native Americans within a space usually reserved for the purpose of advertising goods and services to be sold is an emotionally complex experience. This complexity has always been Pappan’s “hook” and what sets him apart – things are never quite what they seem; there are dimensions and layers; subtexts and buried meanings.

These most recent works of Pappan bring forth the complexity in a triumphant new scale and we hope to see more of it.        

Chris Pappan

CP_applesauceIt is with great delight that Kiva Gallery finds the face of Chris Pappan adorning the cover of the latest issue of Native Peoples Magazine. Pappan is one of the Gallery’s favourite artists and we are proud to have several of his works in our collection. A truly accomplished draftsman, Pappan brings a modern sensibility to the tradition of ledger art. He would rather be called “big city Indian” (he lives in Chicago) than Native American and this progressive stance shines through in his art.

Like many other contemporary artists – for instance Douglas Miles, Ryan Singer and Frank Buffalo Hyde – Pappan’s art engages with what I would call second-order representations. They are, in other words, not primarily trying to convey a “truth” about Native culture but are rather concerned with representations of representations – of movie stars and actors, and how Native culture has been represented by people outside of it. Needless to say, when representation of a culture lies in the hands of people who know nothing about it, the result is often skewed and misguided. Nevertheless, these images have entered the collective consciousness of popular culture, and the task many contemporary Native artists have taken upon themselves is to point to the fallacies of these images.

If we are to believe Michelle H. Raheja, this is far from an easy task. Raheja suggests in her book ”Reservation Reelism” that when the Bildhegemonic culture work its hardest to deny and suppress Native Americans, any evidence of their existence becomes cause for celebration. Hence for a Native American audience starved on images of their culture, the fact of visibility has sometimes overridden concerns about the hurtfulness of distorted representations. This could explain why many Native Americans of the older generation have taken even obviously negative representations and characters such as Tonto to heart. Simply put, it was all they had.

Pappan often relies on stereotypical imagery of Natives. Far from enabling a facile identification with these images, however, Pappan employs aesthetic strategies that make them slip from the viewer’s grasp. Pappan’s drawings often include distortions that disturb the proper reception of them. As Chris Pappan explains: “My images are distorted to reflect the distorted image of Indians in contemporary culture and the way Indians themselves are distorted by images.” When looking at a Pappan drawing, therefore, one gets the feeling that, according to the laws of perspective, it does not cohere. It’s as if a single figure is being viewed from different spatial positions simultaneously.

Bild 19There is art-historical precedence to this technique. Ever since the laws of perspective became an artistic institution, artists have liked to play around with them. The art of turning perspective on its head almost became a genre of painting unto itself and it became known as “anamorphosis”. Leonardo Da Vinci was a avid practitioner. Historically, anamorphic distortion in painting has been used to simultaneously present and disguise a content that some might regard as controversial. It was a way to sneak burlesque and sexual imagery as well as political commentary past a possibly censorious establishment. This was made possible by the way an anamorphic picture has to be viewed from a specific angle to make sense. From a frontal position, an anamorphic picture appears an incomprehensible mess. But viewed from a particular perspective, the content of the image clearly appears.

This historical background to anamorphosis serves Pappan’s purposes of subverting stereotypes well. It’s as if Pappan uses the device of distortion to suggest that beneath stereotypical imagery lies another reality. One that is only attainable by changing ones perspective and outlook on the world.

There is a poetry of instability and elusiveness to Pappan’s images. While rooted in past and possibly damaging representations, his art also suggest that these are not the final word. The image of the Native American is open to revision, and changing it is what a new generation of Native artists have set out to do.

 

Chris Pappan and his art can been seen at SWAIA – Santa Fe Indian Market August 18-24.