Ryan Singer’s outlines

Like I’ve stated before here on the blog, Ryan Singer’s art is a glorious combination of 1980s era skateboard graphics, rock poster art, and comic books. 

Recently, Singer has taken his pop cultural obsessions to the next level by fusing iconic Star Wars characters with traditional Navajo milieus. In Singer’s paintings, Tuba City becomes Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine and gigantic AT AT walkers can be seen marching through a wintery Shiprock, New Mexico. Somehow, the transformation manages to come off as completely logical. Ryan Singer can make the seemingly incompatible come together in a completely natural way. This is also the case in the paintings I want to put into focus today.  

 

One of Singer’s stylistic trademarks is his use of heavy outlines. Of course, strong outlines are a big part of the low brow/comic book aesthetic that Singer has adopted. But they are rarely associated with scenes of a more solemn and introspective character. That’s why I’ve been very taken with two of Singer’s paintings in Kiva Gallery’s collection. One is of an elderly woman staring out of the frame into the unknown. The fact that the viewer doesn’t see what she’s gazing at has the effect of turning the gaze inward rather than outward. Singer’s traditionally thick line work underscores this experience. There is much emotional content that can be read into the effect of the outline. The outline is so heavy it makes her seem anchored to the landscape. At the same time it closes the figure off and makes her appear isolated from her surroundings. The landscape behind her is simplified so that the woman pops out even more, which makes it impossible for the viewer to ignore her introspection. This is one of those rare paintings that instantly catapults the viewer into pondering the inner life of a figure that came into being solely through paint. Like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, the viewer can’t help but wonder “what on earth could she be thinking about”. Yes, I just compared Ryan Singer to Leonardo Da Vinci. The comparison is apt but perhaps not adequate, because in a way the contemplation in front of Singer’s painting is more profound than Mona-Lisa’s. This is after all a Native woman so you know she’s seen some shit in her days. More than the smirk on the face of her more famous art historical relative would suggest.  

Kiva Gallery also has another Ryan Singer painting with an unusually serene mood. It is a deceptively simple scene. But if you allow it, the outline will tell a deeper story about time and stasis, tradition and generational renewal. Again, it’s a painting of a woman in a landscape. In contrast to the woman above, this woman is young. Her activity, however, is old. She is spinning wool. The landscape around her seems to respond to her activity because it curves around the girl almost to envelope her. But there is that thick outline again, tracing the contours of the girl’s body and shielding her off from her surroundings. It is almost as if the landscape is moving more than she is. A strong outline reifies movement rather than capture it. In a way it stops movement and freezes it which makes the experience of superhero comics, which are of course full of movement, deliciously paradoxical. The girl spinning wool seems remarkably still despite being caught mid-motion. From the perspective of her activity, time has stopped moving. The girl probably learned how to spin wool from her mother, and she in turn will teach her daughter. The activity doesn’t belong to her, she belongs to the activity that has existed before her and will continue to exist long after she is gone.  

 

I’m very grateful for these paintings and proud to have them grace the walls of Kiva Gallery. While they are completely representative of Ryan Singer’s painterly style, the quiet subject matter makes at least this viewer more attentive to the function of his artistic techniques and the stories they tell.     

Mateo Romero and the terrain of paint

We’ve been doing some photography at Kiva Gallery in order to take stock of the gallery’s collection and put together and much needed database of quality images. Going through all the work in the gallery is a great opportunity to fall in love all over again with the art. We are letting the process take its time so we can study the paintings, sculptures and textiles up close. With the help of zoom lenses one can get into details on an almost microscopic level. You discover things that’s not available to the naked eye. Mateo Romero’s paintings have proven particularly rewarding to put through this process.  

Mateo Romero’s recent focus on landscape is such a logical step considering his treatment of paint. That he takes landscape as motif is one thing, but with Romero you always get two paintings in one. Beyond the subject matter there is a dimension of pure paint that demands to be experienced on its own terms. And once you enter this dimension you go through what can only be described as the bliss of pure art. 

Like modernism’s star theorist Clement Greenberg, Mateo Romero knows that painting a good story does not alone a good painting make. Of course, there is plenty of narrative content in a Romero. But there is also another side to Romero, one that sets its sights on abstraction. This is the side that would appeal to Greenberg because it is here that Romero indulges in the modernist imperative to explore what constitutes painting as an art form, i.e. the paint itself, and the power it holds to be a vehicle for emotion.  

One can clearly see the importance Romero imparts to paint in “Girl with a Gun”. Aside from the figurative content, which is the expected source of suspense considering there is a gun involved, tension and drama is here conveyed primarily through paint. Unlike other paintings by Romero, there is a strict, almost dichotomous, protocol to the distribution of paint that tells it’s own wordless story. The totality of the background, or the field that surrounds the figure, is made up entirely of horizontal brushstrokes. This strict painterly scheme is however contrasted sharply by the formless spatter of paint spread across the center of the painting particularly and out toward the edges of the canvas. Control and abandonment here lives side by side and is through paint brought to bear upon the figurative content in a way that gives it added depth. The established tension tells of a threat of violent eruption that seems to belie the cool posture and demeanour of the girl holding the gun. 

“Girl with a Gun” is a particularly dramatic example of Romero’s treatment of paint. There are other examples where paint is allowed to be equally expressive but more joyful and captivating. These kinds of brushstrokes are especially found in Romero’s Dancer series. More on that later. The photography sessions will continue and further excursions into Romero’s wonderful world of paint will be reported here.  

Nicholas Galanin mid-career retrospective at Heard Museum

Kiva Gallery loves Nicholas Galanin and thinks he is one of the most important figures in contemporary art, so we are excited to hear that Heard Museum will host a mid-career retrospective of his work. The exhibition will be titled ”Dear Listener” and run through May 04 to September 03, 2018. To my knowledge it will the biggest solo exhibition of Galanin’s work to date and will encompass more than 10,000 square feet of new and existing works by Galanin including video installation, sculpture, performance art, works on paper, installation work, and fashion.

A few words in remembrance of James Luna and his artistic fearlessness.

The world of performance art suffered a great loss when artist James Luna passed away at the beginning of this month. A resident of the La Jolla reservation, Luna was a highly respected figure of the California Native community. As someone who considers La Jolla and its surroundings somewhat of a second home, I have seen first hand how revered and admired Luna is in those parts. His importance, however, transcends geography and his work has been particularly relevant to recent discussions of cultural misrepresentation and appropriation. With a president who casually refers to his Native American co-workers as “Pocahontas”, the current political climate needs every strong voice of objection and protest it can summon. Luna was indeed one such voice and many of his pieces were conceived to actively disrupt the romanticized commodification of Native culture. In the performance “Take a Picture With a Real Indian”, for instance, Luna targets the gap between the popular image of Indians and Indians as actual human beings.

 

Luna originally staged the performance at Union Station in Washington D.C. in 1991. The performance consisted of Luna taking up a spot and proclaiming to bypassers: “Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture here, in Washington, D.C. on this beautiful Monday morning, on this holiday called Columbus Day. America loves to say ‘her Indians.’ America loves to see us dance for them. America likes our arts and crafts. America likes to name cars and trucks after our tribes. Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture here today, on this sunny day here in Washington, D.C.”

Being photographed together with strangers who saw him primarily as an object would not surprisingly take a toll on his pride and Luna would end the performance when he felt too upset or humiliated to continue.

 

The video above is from a more recent recreation of the performance but here too the discomfort is clearly visible. This discomfort seem to be shared by performer and participants alike. Sometimes it’s unclear why the people in the audience want to have their picture taken together with Luna. Are they clued into the motives behind the performance or do they respond to the exotic nature of the offer, as if being photographed with an Indian is an opportunity as rare as meeting a lion. Maybe the participants themselves don’t really know. And this confusion and uncertainty is testament to the success of the work. The performance opens a space for the audience to question their own reception of exotic constructs.

Luna was reportedly trained by the mythical Bas Jan Ader who disappeared at sea during the creation of one of his art pieces. Although he didn’t go to quite the same extremes as Ader, Luna did make his own body his primary artistic medium. This made Luna’s work particularly challenging. Other Native artists may have tackled the same subjects as Luna, but the fact that he used his own body lends an confrontational and physical poignancy to topics and themes that might otherwise remain confined to the intellectual realm.

Luna’s physical methods were particularly effective when he located his critique to the institutional practices of museums. In “The Artifact Piece” (performed in 1987 at the San Diego Museum of Man) Luna put his own body on display, laying it down in the museum among other historical objects. Thinking he was a lifeless object of exhibition, some visitors would touch his body and experience a slight shock upon finding it a living and breathing entity. It is one thing to verbally point out the discrepancies between the Native American as historical artifact found in museums and Native American as a living and thriving culture. But to stage this discrepancy through one’s own body is quite another thing and the piece had a huge impact among Native artistic communities.

Personally, I knew James Luna only very superficially. A few years ago James Luna reached out to me with the proposition of collaborating on something in Sweden. Nothing materialized, however, and I sadly regret that the opportunity now has passed. Among many of the artists represented by Kiva Gallery, James Luna is spoken of with the highest admiration and respect. Luna struck a rare balance of fearlessness, humour and sensitivity in his art, and for this his influence will doubtlessly live on.

 

Pendleton has made the perfect accessory for your next visit to the ice planet Hoth

Oh wow! Didn’t know this existed. The textile manufacturing company Pendleton has released a series of Star Wars blankets. Luke Skywalker and fam meet the tribes as familiar Star Wars motifs are set against backgrounds of traditional Native patterns. We’ve written about the popularity of the Star Wars franchise among contemporary Native American artists. My guess is that these blankets are at the top of these artists christmas wish lists.

Pendleton has produced one unique blanket for each movie in the latest trilogy, as well as a couple of others. My favourite blanket is probably the one that accompanies Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which premiered just last week. It has a beautiful red, blue, black and white color scheme and incorporates the Star Wars iconography into the overall Native pattern.

 

Sadly, Kiva Gallery doesn’t stock Pendleton Star Wars blankets just yet, but we do have several other Pendleton blankets for sale. Swedish winter may not be as gruelling as on Hoth, but almost. A Pendleton blanket is the perfect christmas gift, it will keep you warm and cozy all through winter.

 

Teaching Jimmy Nelson a lesson on the importance of listening

Currently, Jimmy Nelson’s photographic project “Before They Pass Away” is touring the world. As the somewhat dramatic title indicates, the theme is extinction, and the subjects of this supposed extinction are indigenous cultures. From Inuit tribes in Northern Siberia to Argentinian Gauchos in the South, Nelson has travelled the widths and lengths of the globe to unearth cultures almost entirely disconnected from modern society.

The project has been both celebrated and criticized. Visually speaking, the photographs are without a doubt impressive. When the exhibition visited Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm last year, I was myself immediately seduced by the gigantic glossy tableaus. So big are they that they let you immerse yourself in widespread landscapes as well as the slightest ornamental detail on the items of clothing. Visual seduction aside, however, something starts to chafe when getting deeper into the information and statements accompanying the project. This is far from an objective anthropological exposé. Nelson makes no qualms about it. In the statement accompanying the exhibition, Nelson’s photographs are said to be entirely subjective. They do not seek to capture the truth. The figures are obviously posed, romanticized and beautified. In Nelson’s words they are made up to be “icons” rather than real, everyday people. Okay, one thinks, so are the photos to be read as some sort of postmodernist interrogation of the notion of truth? It would be one thing if it was, but Nelson’s influences lean more toward Edward S. Curtis than Jean-Francois Lyotard, so in fact it’s quite the opposite. In other places he even considers himself a “collector of truth”. The question inevitably poses itself – how can one be both the representative of truth and yet highly subjective? No doubt there seems to be some confusion about Nelson’s conceptual pediments. Many have been understandably offended by Nelson’s reckless wielding of his flimsy version of truth and the project has suffered severe critique from Survival International (http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/10244) as well as representatives of the very cultures he photographs ( http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/oct/29/jimmy-nelson-indigenous-people-survival-international). What they have objected to is how Nelson presents these cultures as threatened by modern life when they show no signs of disappearing, but also the idealized manner in which they appear in the photos.

As a Swedish gallery dealing in Native American art, I can relate to Nelson’s position. I am by necessity an outsider to the culture I am interested in. I want the objects that are exhibited in my gallery to be beautiful, but I also want them to say something about the cultural background from which they originate. Not always does this fit into my what my expectations tell me. One way of making the job easier is through personal contact with the artists. All of the art in Kiva Gallery are chosen on the basis of a personal relationship with the artists. I have visited them in their homes. I have talked to them. I’ve been in awe. I’ve disagreed. I’ve been wide-eyed and I’ve been disappointed. I’ve been human to them and they have been human to me. I have listened to their stories and as a result I’ve sometimes had to revise my preconceptions. It doesn’t really seem like Nelson has listened to the stories of the people he portrays. If he had he would know that the Dani people of West Papua don’t like to be called the “most dreaded head-hunting tribe of Papua” (http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/10628).
Not once in my encounters with Native Americans have I heard talk of the culture dying out. And If Nelson had listened I doubt that he would have heard it. My point is that marginalized people should be allowed to be in charge of their own narrative.th

The problem is that Nelson tries to be both an artist and an anthropologist. Considering the scarcity of documentation around the cultures Nelson targets, the artist and the anthropologist are far from comfortable bedfellows. As an artist, Nelson is free to do whatever he feels like with his subjects. But an anthropologist doesn’t have – or shouldn’t have – that freedom. An artistically distorted image needs an anthropologically “true” image as a counterweight, otherwise there is no way to recognize the distortion. But if no other images exist, Nelson’s image becomes the primary point of reference and thereby artificiality easily becomes the “true” image. This becomes an issue considering that Nelson merits himself on capturing cultures that are infamously hard to access, which is to say that documentation is very scarce. Nelson has to make a choice: either the images are to be considered as a purely subjective expression of an artist’s vision or objective anthropological documentation. Having it both ways leaves Nelson open to the charge of misrepresentation and falsification.

Of course, Nelson means well – he wants the world to see how beautiful the people he meets are. Nothing wrong with that. The problem is that such a shallow approach is simply not enough to live up to his grander ethnographic ambitions. In his TED talk, Nelson gives a taste of just how shallow his vision th-1of truth really is. In a slideshow of his photographs, Nelson includes an image of a group of Samburu Warriors, shot from the back. The figures, Nelson claims, are often mistaken for women. He then shows the frontal view – tadaa, they’re men! The point of this little demonstration is to encourage us to “look closer, for things are not always what they seem”. If Nelson’s vision of the truth is as superficial as that it goes without saying that his claims of the photos as an “important ethnographic record” should be disqualified. Elissa Washuta has faulted Nelson’s preoccupation with visual cues of identity and notes that, “Personal strongholds of identity are often invisible.“ (http://www.salon.com/2013/11/24/americas_w
rongheaded_obsession_with_vanishing_indigenous_peoples/
). Which is to say that Nelson would do well to focus on factors other than mere superficial appearance. This might be much to ask of a photographer. But what if Nelson instead of dressing his subjects up to look as exotic and obsolete as possible had asked them to be photographed with something that was important to them. Maybe someone had wanted to be portrayed with their iPhone playing – I don’t know – Candy Crush. All of a sudden a more complex picture comes to light, one that is not compatible with generalizing and dramatic claims about dying cultures. Sadly, Nelson doesn’t allow for such mixtures of tradition and progress. His narrative is already in place, and it is one where his photographs stands as the last heroic record of vanished cultures.

There is a glaring absence of Native North American cultures from Nelson’s project. The exclusion was consciously made by Nelson on grounds that North American tribes haven’t retained their heritage. Not only is this a deeply insulting claim but it also bears witness to how limited and antiquated Nelson’s ethnographic guidelines are. It goes to show that Nelson’s conclusion is already in place even before he has started his photographic documentation. As a result, Nelson has put himself in the unflattering and eminently colonialist position of judging was is and is not to be considered as authentic to a culture. Similar judgments of authenticity often guided the practice of Nelson’s hero Edward S. Curtis. Just like Nelson, Curtis would dress up his subjects and pose them for the camera. But sometimes an unwelcome reality would still intrude. Curtis would then have to alter photographs after being shot to fit his view of how things should be (http://www.salon.com/2013/11/24/americas_wrongheaded_obsession_with_vanishing_indigenous_peoples/ ). In a portrait of Little Plume and his son Yellow Kidney, for instance, Curtis retouched the picture to remove an alarm clock that he deemed incompatible with the preconceived simple ways of the Native. It’s a paradoxical and self-defeating way of documentation. On the one hand the presumed likeness of photography is utilised to bring us closer to cultures most have very little knowledge about. But on the other hand subjective judgments of what is and what is not part of the culture brings us farther away from the present realities of these cultures.

If Nelson had listened more he would have realised that change does not necessarily equal death. A lot of the cultures he portrays have changed from what they were a hundred years ago. That does not mean they are about to disappear.
Native Americans today watch TV, they listen to Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, they skateboard. This does not mean that they “havent retained their heritage”. They also hold traditional ceremonies, pow-wows and sweat lodges. This diversity has not led to cultural death. On the contrary Natives are quite proud of their culture which today includes both traditional and modern elements.
And if Nelson would have allowed his subjects to speak louder than his camera I doubt they would have spoken of death.

New exhibition

Tradition in Transition: Navajo weaving  

Ancient weaving tradition meets young and breathtaking contemporary  aesthetics.

Now Kiva Gallery is showing unique works by artist Melissa Codya young Navajo woman tired of stereotypes and gifted with an amazing talent for using the most unusual and bold palette in her art of weaving. 

Among other things, Melissa Cody finds inspiration in street art which she channels through the medium of traditional weaving. Cody’s knowledge of weaving has been passed down through generations, and she has since a young age been developing her own unique aesthetic vision of the textile art.

We are also showing antique rugs and more traditional examples of Navajo weaving.

 

Melissa Cody ”Reclamation” (detail)

Bloodstained feathers..

Thomas Breeze Marcus, "Hethuska Two Feathers", 2013

NEW ACQUISITION  to the gallery:

Two humble-looking feathers, a work by artist Thomas Breeze Marcus (Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham).

Here, – their story in Breeze Marcus’s own words:

– ”My blood line on my family’s Ponca side. As the story goes, a Ponca Warrior was out by himself hunting and came across two enemies near his camp. The Ponca Warrior surprised the two, capturing them and tied them up, then killing and mutilating one of the enemies. The Ponca man then released the other enemy making him carry the mutilated body back to tell the others to stay away from his people, –  or he would do the same to all of them…

To this day in the Ponca Hethuska Society or Warriors Society, a single feather (sometimes two) is worn on top of the Straight Dance Regalia.  Being passed down through generations, our family in the Hethuska wear two feathers with the outfit… symbolizing the two enemies from the old story. My uncle (my mom’s younger brother) wears two during the dances in honor of the story, and the rights passed down to our family. ”

Phoenix rising

Strolling through downtown Phoenix, Arizona, one encounters this majestic mural created by Thomas ”Breeze” Marcus, entitled, appropriately (for many reasons) ”Phoenix Rising”

Photos by Mona Terenius

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kiva gallery has this, more owner friendly piece, by Breeze Marcus

”Camp Lo Swing” by Thomas ”Breeze” Marcus