Kent Monkman: Failure of Modernity

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January 15 - April 23, 2016




January 15 - April 23, 2016 Artist Kent Monkman is a Canadian First Nations artist of Cree and Irish ancestry. This exhibit is the premier installation of the program with currents works that examine how the West has appropriated methods and imagery and borrowed perspectives from Indigenous peoples, through painting, installations and performance art. Utilizing an enhanced realism, humor and satire, this body of work examines urban life and the way Indigenous American and Canadian history has been presented in art by European, Early Christian and Renaissance artists, as well as 20st Century artists such as Picasso and Francis Bacon, and, as Monkman states, “constructs new stories through images that take into account the missing narratives and perspectives of Aboriginal peoples.� His work also explores the tensions inherent in modern dialogues about gender, race, sexual identity and culture. Included in this catalog is a series of video works that superimpose live action figures on paintings of classic early Greek and Roman architecture and landscape. Kent Monkman portrays Miss Chief Testicle as his alter ego figure, as well as the protagonist, seer, and provocateur: characters in his mini-movies. Failure of Modernity is the inaugural exhibit of a broader thematic program entitled Outside In, a year-long exploration of indigenous influences on 20th century art. Outside-In includes a lecture series at Peters Projects with invited keynote speakers discussing critical issues in contemporary art about reclaiming place in the West. The first in this series, was a Question and Answer with art historian, Lucy R.Lippard and Kent Monkman.

Love 2014 acrylic on canvas 72 x 48 inches

Le Petit DÊjuger sur L’herbe, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 126 inches

Death of the Female, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 126 inches

The Deposition, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 126 inches

Seeing Red, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 126 inches

BĂŞte Noire 2014 acrylic and hide on plywood 72 inches x 95 inches x 3 inches (12 inches with arrows)

Study for Hope 2014 watercolor and gouache on paper 16 1/2 x 11 inches

Study for Love 2014 watercolor and gouache on paper 16 1/2 x 11 inches

The Symposium, 46 inch HD monitor, file on SD card, media player, wall mount, edition of 5

The Transfiguration, 46 inch HD monitor, file on SD card, media player, wall mount, edition of 5

The Human Zoo, 46 inch HD monitor, file on SD card, media player, wall mount, edition of 5

The Immoral Woman 46 inch HD monitor, file on SD card, media player, wall mount edition of 5


Lucy R. Lippard: So, shall we get the inevitable, and always interesting question of indigenous identity out of the way? You began training as an illustrator and your earliest mature paintings were abstractions in which the Cree alphabet, or Cree text, veiled homo erotic acts and slowly evolved to the acts as central and the texts in English. Then you turned to representation to better -- and this really interests me -- to better communicate with your audience, which by now is the international art world. Is your audience often Cree? Do you perform on the reserve? I know some Nations are pretty ambivalent about queer issues. Kent Monkman: I’m mostly an urban dweller and I never lived on the reserve that I am affiliated with, and that’s a whole story because the Canadian government, I’m sure the U.S. government too, relocated people a number of times. So my nation was relocated and split up three times; so my great-grandmother was moved actually three times in her lifetime. Finally, she was settled on a reserve on an unattractive piece of land, and she decided not to stay there. She went and homesteaded off-reserve. So, most of the First Nations community that I interact with happen to live in Toronto or in cities, but, you know, the greater percentage of Native people in Canada actually do live in cities now. Lucy R. Lippard: You’re exposing, as you put it, the sort of, this is a quote from you, “The space between cultures is quite fluid, where different cultures are borrowing from each other and gaining and losing to each other.” I think that’s a really important statement. Can you kind of elaborate on that? Kent Monkman: Well I think, you know, European settler cultures, have been on this continent for hundreds of years, so of course there’s been a lot of exchange, a lot of interaction and, you know, I think cultures are fluid, and they’re always in that state of evolving and borrowing and exchanging from each other, sometimes aggressively, sometimes not. But I’ve been interested in that space because the artists that I was really interested in for a number of years, and made a lot of work about were those sort of European settler artists like George Catlin, Albert Bierstadt, whose eye was on the Native people of North America; and I was particularly interested in challenging that point of view and challenging that perspective because they were completely obsessed with the idea that native people only existed if they were still existing in their pure pre-contact state. Catlin wrote about it. He despised it if First Nations people showed influence

from European cultures. He called it contamination. Lucy R. Lippard: It’s still going on. Kent Monkman: So, and then, a lot of my work since then was really about looking at museum practice as well, and how museums would perpetuate these problematic kind of representations as well. So it grew out of my exploration of their artwork and then into museum practice. That’s why a lot of my work deals directly with how museums represent Native people. Lucy R. Lippard: The fluidity interests me too because of course the fluidity of sexuality as well is very much a part of it, and I was thinking that in a way, with Métis, you’re part Métis too? Kent Monkman: Well, Cree on my dad’s side and English-Irish on my mother’s side, so technically you could say I’m Métis but I have status with my tribe and I consider myself a Cree person. Lucy R. Lippard: No, I was just thinking that Métis, or anybody who’s mixed is also in a sense a two-spirited identity because the fluidity is back and forth and that space that you talk about is. Kent Monkman: Yeah so there’s a kind -- I mean that’s -- I feel like because I am of mixed ancestry my work kind of has to deal with that, and I think that’s what makes the work interesting and kind of sometimes dangerous and dynamic. Lucy R. Lippard: So you’ve said that Miss Chief was inspired by Catlin painting himself painting Indians to some extent, wild wild west shows, and by Pnobscot performer Molly Spotted Elk. I’ve been particularly interested in her, it was fun to hear her mentioned because I’ve been interested in her for years because she was hired in, I think the nineteen-twenties, to teach crafts and be an Indian when she was quite young, at a camp that’s right next to where I live in Maine in the summers and have all my life, so I’ve read her biography and gave it to the people who own that land now and its kind of an amazing story. Do you want to say something about Molly? Kent Monkman: Well I was drawn to her story because she was a Native person who was performing in Europe and these video paintings are kind of exploring those narratives of Native people in Europe interacting, interfacing with the continent and different cities and of course Europeans. And, you know, that part of Native history is kind of not talked about as much, but it’s really fascinating because it sort of includes that reversal of gaze that I was really interested

in when I created Miss Chief, creating a persona that would actually turn the gaze back on Europeans and use them as her subjects and exploit them to a certain degree. So I was interested in Molly because she was one of those performers that was in Europe and she was an important part of how I was tracing performance culture back into the nineteenth century and earlier, as I was developing my performance work with Miss Chief as a character, and I created a backstory for Miss Chief where she was one of the First Nations people that Catlin took with him to Europe to perform with him in his travelling gallery; and then her story was that she sort of decided her ego was too big to be just a player in Catlin’s circus so she broke out on her own, and sort of started her own troupe, and eventually she became a filmmaker herself. So that idea of Molly being one of those people performing in Europe was really fascinating to me. Lucy R. Lippard: And that’s one of the video paintings? Kent Monkman: Yeah there’s four of them here, the one over here is kind of riffing on a little bit of Molly Spotted Elk but also Josephine Baker, so that period of history where in Europe you had human zoos. Lucy R. Lippard: The Exotic Others. Kent Monkman: You had the Exotic Others being presented as a form of entertainment and this is kind of one of the moments I think in Miss Chief’s backstory where she’s just about ready to leave Catlin. [Laughs] Lucy R. Lippard: How did she first burst off canvas into real space? Kent Monkman: So, she had been in paintings for a number of years and I was invited to do another artist in residence at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection just outside of Toronto, the Kleinberg, and that museum was founded by two collectors and the premise of their museum was to uphold, again, kind of an outdated idea of Canadian art and First Nations art. And even though it had become a public institution there had been this legal battle where the McMichaels were kind of fighting to roll the clock back. So they had a lot of contemporary art pieces by First Nations artists that had been exhibited at the gallery and purchased by the gallery, but then the McMichaels felt like it didn’t fit, it didn’t suit their ideas of who First Nations people are or should be, or the collecting mandate of the galleries, so for instance, the works of two friends of mine, Native artists Michael Belmore and Mary Anne Barkhouse, their work was removed and

and put out by the dumpster. And the curator at the time wasn’t allowed to program contemporary First Nations art anymore, but there was this one loophole which was a weekend residency in a shack that had actually been preserved. It was Tom Thompson’s shack, and Tom Thompson was one of the group of seven, sort of, you know, an early twentieth century white Canadian landscape painter. So here was this moment to kind of do something subversive on the weekend without the regular staff and board aware of what was going on. The idea was I was supposed to occupy that shack and do something in the shack or something, and so that was the moment that I decided to bring Miss Chief to life, and she staged this artist and model painting session where she had two European males that she decided to dress up to look more European and more authentic. So there was a performance piece and then a film shoot which ended up sprawling across the grounds of this museum, and we’re shooting in Tom Thompson’s shack, and the general public was there, and all that was going on without anyone realizing, the public had no idea, so I was being stopped and asked for pictures, there were two weddings that we were sort of competing against. [Laughter] So there she was -Lucy R. Lippard: There’s something symbolic about that. [Laughs] Kent Monkman: Yeah, and it was one of those, it was the first time I had shot with super 8 film, so I had been making more conventional films with sync sound and I was finally kind of restricted. So there we were with our guerrilla style super 8 films shooting from the hip without sound. And it was a really liberating experience to bring her to life as a performer and then to make this film and the energy that comes through in the film is really palpable. Lucy R. Lippard: I had a whole bunch of questions about the earlier work but since this is here we should concentrate I guess more on it. Until recently, the places in your paintings were sort of extraordinary western landscape backdrops based on Bierstadt in the nineteenth century, and they were more mythical than real and they also of course played a major role in manifest destiny. In the urban series shown here, working class Winnipeg takes front stage and the players are really contemporary rather than historical. So you’ve gone from the fantastic to the very specific, from the past to the present. So what’s the place of place in your work and how does it relate to the fundamental significance of land and Native cultures? Kent Monkman: So again, all of that was kind of following a trajectory of my exploration of nineteenth-century painting, and as nineteenth-century painting kind of rolled into the beginning of modernism, the vocabulary of painting started to change, and as a painter I had to the think

about what painting is and what it has been, and I was interested in that kind of reduction of that painterly vocabulary that happened, from the zenith of painting in the nineteenth-century, up through into the twentieth-century, to the black painting, which was essentially the death of painting. Lucy R. Lippard: Which I wrote a book about! [Laughs] Kent Monkman: So it was really about thinking about how that culture of modernity was about this culture of deliberate or willful amnesia, and so I made this parallel in my artwork, and this is why you see these references to cubism and modernist works, it was because that last hundred and fifty years of modernism was running concurrently with the most aggressive and most devastating period of time for First Nations people. It represented, in Canada at least, the signing of the treaties, the reserve system, and residential schools, and so forth. So because those grand paintings were essentially painted as empty landscapes, disappearing Native people from view, I wanted to kind of carry that forward into the present because we live in a time now where people don’t really like to even think about the fact that this was all indigenous land, and these places like Winnipeg were gathering places for First Nations people. So it was about reminding people, to pull them out of that culture of amnesia to say look, this is all First Nations land, these are all places that we lived in, that we traded in, that we gathered in, and cities grew up out and around these places. And Winnipeg is a place that is particularly harsh in the north end for a lot of the First Nations people that are streaming in from the reserves because there’s no jobs, there’s no future, kids are killing themselves, and this is all part of the fallout of colonization. And it happens, it plays out on the streets of Winnipeg. I grew up in Winnipeg going to the Manitoba museum, which is this repository of indigenous cultures, and they had these life-size dioramas that really intrigued me as a kid, but on the outside, you know, so you had this frozen in time, pre-contact image of Native people, and on the streets you would walk outside and there was skid row with all these people just kind of in a miserable state. So as a kid I just remember having this really disconnected, kind of disturbing experience of these two worlds. One the ideal world, you know, frozen in time in a museum, and then there was the reality of what had happened to our people and how our people were struggling on the street. Lucy R. Lippard: And it’s interesting that the older paintings are all very distant and these are right up close.

Kent Monkman: And I think, you know, just as a painter too, as I decided to kind of go in the direction of representational painting, I had been frustrated working with the vocabulary of abstract painting because I felt like it wasn’t expansive enough to deal with the subjects that were important to me. Some of the subjects were so big that I felt like I wasn’t quite ready to tackle them, I didn’t quite have the skills to take them on with the kind of gravity that they required. So part of it was just knowing that eventually I was going to, I just needed to get my chops up. I wanted to do it justice. Lucy R. Lippard: This is a sort of minor question but the role of wildlife sort of interests me. Coyote is obvious because Kent has been called a trickster. Ravens, one of them somewhere is attacking the dove of peace, they’re ravens and not crows. I’m very fond of crows too, but I can never tell the difference. And then the buffalo figure which is prominent in so many works as both sort of a healing and a warrior figure where the buffalo dancers are coming in, and then the matador from Manet, and Miss Chief as matador and there’s a whole, maybe sasquatch qualifies too as an animal, I don’t know where he comes in but [. . .] Kent Monkman: Well I was interested in those animal references in this series because I wanted people to think that, you know, there are elements of mythology -- they are mythological characters -- so that means our cultures are still alive. Even though we’re living in cities our indigenous culture are still alive, so those elements from the natural world representative of the spirit world, I wanted them to be integral in these urban environments. And then I had been really been picking on Picasso, and so I wanted to create this parallel between the bison and Picasso’s bull, Picasso being kind of the most misogynistic perhaps of those modern artists, and so squaring him off with Miss Chief, I thought, was a lot of fun in terms of trying to balance and create some balance between male and female energies.



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