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.     

How contemporary Native American artists counter cultural appropriation with artistic appropriation

Google “Native American appropriation art” and the first five pages of results or so are all about negative cases of cultural appropriation. On these pages we can read about how outsiders misuse Native American images and cultural heritage, such as the infamous feathered headdress on a lingerie clad model in a Victoria’s Secret show five years ago. Cultural appropriation, of course, continues to be a problem and something that should be addressed and discussed. However, when typing in that search term I wasn’t looking for Native Americans as victims. I wanted to read about how appropriation is used as a strategy within contemporary Native American art. I was looking for Native American artists as agents of empowerment. To find such results buried under droves of articles about how Native American iconography has been mistreated must feel like a double slap in the face. First whites steal Native cultural practices and use it in a distorted way, then this act of appropriation steals the attention away from Native artists who use appropriation as a way to symbolically fight back.

This makes it very difficult to place the aesthetic tactics of many Native American artists into proper art historical perspective, which is a shame, especially considering how significant appropriation is for many Native artists. Appropriation is, after all, a genre of contemporary art that has perhaps been the most important hub for questions concerning artistic authorship and originality and the contextual relativity of the meaning of images. It is perhaps within the Native art community that the legacy of appropriation art today finds it’s firmest stronghold. At first sight it may come as a surprise to learn how popular Andy Warhol is in this community. I can tell you that it is not because of his “Cowboy and Indian series”, but rather because of how Warhol demonstrated that the specialness of a sign – for instance a Campbell’s soup can – can be emptied by the act of repetition and how the meaning of a pre-existing image or object can be altered by placing it within a new context.

Warhol himself was not a particularly political figure, but the strategy of appropriation, of “copying” images and making them your own, has a history of political uses.
Dara Birnbaum and Sherrie Levine used appropriation to feminist ends. By repeating and recontextualizing imagery by male originators they questioned the authenticity of representations of gender. Appropriation has also been employed to question the commodity value of art and its underlying economic structures.

Even before it was a genre of art, Raphael Montanez Ortiz performed a case of appropriation aimed at exposing the misrepresentation of Native Americans. In 1957 he used a Tomahawk to chop up Anthony Mann’s western Winchester ’73. He then put the pieces back together at random, resulting in a complete scrambling and disruption of the original narrative. “Ortiz considered his shaman-like process resonant with his indigenous heritage. His destructive act also criticized media depictions of Native Americans.” 

As a genre, Native American appropriation art comes across as something self-evident and completely natural. Artists are simply taking images back that were stolen from them. Artists such as Douglas Miles, Jaque Fragua, Steven Paul Judd, Ryan Singer, among many others, consider appropriation a way to take repossession of images that they have lost control over. In short, one might say that appropriation art is a means to combat cultural appropriation.

We’ve written about the importance of graffiti for contemporary Native artists many times here on the blog. In the hands of Native artists, painting with spray cans in public spaces is no petty act of vandalism but a profoundly political gesture. This is clearly demonstrated by Jaques Fragua who wrote “This Is Indian Land” in giant letters on a construction site in Downtown Los Angeles. The act of appropriation is performed in a spirit kindred to graffiti. For Native American artists it is about re-claiming what is rightfully theirs by symbolically taking back their land by illegally writing on it, or redefining images that have been made from an external point of view.

We haven’t written about Jaque Fragua on the blog before, so let’s continue on him. Besides graffiti, Fragua considers appropriation one of his artistic go-to’s. “The Big Chief” is for instance a commercial symbol that has become a recurring character throughout Fragua’s work. Fragua explains: “He’s a chief from a sign that’s near my reservation, at Big Chief Gas Station. If you’ve ever watched Breaking Bad, you’ve see that gas station. I lifted him and I’ve been putting him everywhere—he’s the Big Chief, right? When you put a mirror against another mirror, you start seeing the core of the truths.”

In another interview, Fragua explains the appeal of appropriation more in depth: ”Simply, it’s about imagery that continues to colonize us. By creating fine art out of these visuals and emphasizing the images ad nauseum, it creates the opposite effect. Sort of like Warhol’s soup cans.”  Fragua thus reappropriates his culture’s iconography in a way that conceptually subverts our overconsumption of misappropriated Native American images that has turned into stereotypes.

Some critics fear that appropriation as a artistic gesture has lost some of its meaning in a time when borrowing, quoting, stealing and copying is everyday practice to the point of being ubiquitous. However, for Native American artists, appropriation simply follows the rules of the game set by a white hegemony. It is the answer to a signifying practice already put in place. As such, appropriation is important now perhaps more than ever. With a president that casually refers to people of Native American heritage as “Pocahontas”, and a culture at large that hold it’s racial stereotypes dearly, appropriation as artistic weapon offers a way to strike back. Contemporary Native American artists turn to appropriation not to be trendy or edgy but out of urgency. It opens a line of dialogue that lets Native Americans have the last word on images that they were not in charge of in the first place and thus to let the public know what they think about them.

Further reading about cultural appropriation:

https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/cultural-appreciation-or-cultural-appropriation/

https://jezebel.com/5959698/a-much-needed-primer-on-cultural-appropriation 

http://nativeappropriations.com

 

About appropriation art:

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-the-art-of-copying-ten-masters-of-appropriation

https://www.thoughtco.com/appropriation-appropriation-art-183190 

How Star Wars has inspired Native American art.

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the Star Wars franchise. What better way to celebrate than to show some examples of how Star Wars has appealed to Native artists.
Besides a notable similarity between traditional Hopi hairstyles and how Princess Leia wears her hair, as illustrated by Nicholas Galanin, Star Wars has little direct relevance to Native culturRyanSinger the new ambassadors, 2015e. But of course Native peoples watch movies too. And the classic tale of good triumphing over evil seem to hold something different for everyone to identify with.

Navajo artist Ryan Singer, represented by Kiva Gallery, relies heavily on pop culture in his painting so it’s a small surprise that he has devoted a series of recent paintings to Star Wars. Singer explained the attraction in a radio interview:

“as I got older I started to, kind of like fusing pop-culture imagery with the Navajo culture. Somehow that Star Wars just, kind of like, manifested in there. And, I always thought of Tatooine as the desert that was close to Tuba City where I grew up, and the Sand People nomadic people real similar to how the Navajos were. So, there were all these similarities I saw in the movies. There really is, like sort of, two different worlds, you know, as far as culture. I try to bring them together and mix them up.”

The imaginary movie posters of Jeffrey Veregge has been featured on the blog before. Veregge depicts familiar Star Wars motifs and characters in the artistic style inherited from his Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.

 

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A few years back, Andy Everson did a series of Star Wars – themed paintings that had a political twist. In Everson’s hands, Star Wars battle of light and dark was referenced in order to address political concerns amongst his own tribe.

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Steven Paul Judd specializes in “impossible” encounters of pop-cultural icons with Native American history. His photoshopped juxtapositions are often strikingly
funny but also remarkable for demonstrating a missed encounter and the exclusion of Native culture from mainstream pop culture.

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Excluded or not, the above artists have all taken something they like and made it their own, even though the original content has no explicit relation to their culture whatsoever. I don’t want to read to much into this, but in a way I find the interest in Star Wars encouraging. It demonstrates a DIY approach to inclusion. Looking at these images I feel  – If I may allow myself to partake in Star Wars geekiness and reference the revised subtitle of the very first Star Wars movie –  A New Hope that Native culture may take a bigger slice of pop culture one day.