The Indigenous-Modernist Intersection: Contemporary Native American Paintings and Prints

­During the 1960s and 70s, while the United States was simultaneously waging war in Vietnam and sending men to the Moon, a number of emerging Native American artists began to fuse indigenous themes with modernist techniques, which culminated in an aesthetic hybrid of distinct originality. Unlike earlier western painters who had sought to represent an idealized version of tribal life, this new generation of artists confronted head on the experience of being an American Indian in contemporary society with all of its inherent problems and contradictions. The unique result was the depiction of iconic imagery by means of an avant-garde painterly vocabulary, producing works whose rawness and directness pack a visual punch.

This is most evident in the imposing portrait paintings by Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), John Nieto (born 1936), and Kevin Red Star (born 1943), which incorporate a wide range of stylistic devices culled from European and American modernism. In Scholder’s Indian Portrait No. 3, for example, Paul Gauguin’s perspectival flatness and Henri Matisse’s Fauvist palette are combined with the pictorial language of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art to create a commanding composition of resonating power and beauty.

In the historically significant painting Beef Issue at Fort Sill by T. C. Cannon (1946-1978), who was a student of Scholder’s but whose career was tragically cut short by an automobile accident at the young age of thirty-one, the chromatic intensity is turned up even higher. Concerning the subject matter therein, Cannon pulls no punches in his graphic rendering of the slaughtering of a steer by two women for communal meat rationing. Here we have a metaphorically rich socio-political statement as regards the continual interference in and control of American Indian life on the reservation by the Federal Government. Cannon seems to be conveying to us that nothing has changed in effect since the tragic displacement in the mid to late 1800s of native populations from their ancestral lands.

Scholder’s and Cannon’s mastery of form and color is equally on display in an exquisite set of works on paper included in the exhibition. In Scholder’s bold and striking prints, Native American chiefs and warriors clad in traditional attire are elevated to archetypal status; while in Cannon’s detailed and nuanced woodcuts, family members are realistically portrayed in the context of everyday living. Both artists poignantly remind us, however, by way of the clashing bicultural iconography in their compositions that the indigenous-modernist intersection is never devoid of confrontation.

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About the Artists
(1937 - 2005)
Fritz Scholder was born in 1937 in Breckenridge, Minnesota. He began his formal art studies at the University of Kansas, Wisconsin State University, and Sacramento College in California. Of German and Native American decent, in 1960 Scholder was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation full scholarship for the Southwestern Indian Art Project at the University of Arizona. After receiving his Master of Fine Arts degree, he moved to Santa Fe to teach history and painting at the recently-opened Institute of American Indian Arts. Though Scholder left IAIA ater some five years, he stayed in Santa Fe in a home and studio on Canyon Road.
(1946 - 1978)
Tommy (T.C.) Cannon was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, to a Kiowa father and a Caddo mother. He was given the name Pai-doung-u-day, which translates into "One Who Stands In The Sun," His early life was spent near the Zoltone springs in Southern Oklahoma. As a teenager the family moved to the Gracemount area where he attended the local high school. He displayed a talent for drawing and writing at an early age winning numerous awards for his art work around the Gracemount and Anardako areas.

After graduating from high school, he attended Institute of American Indian Artist in Santa Fe, New Mexico from 1964-1966. It was at this school during the "golden age", where he studied alongside other talented artist, such as Earl Biss, Doug Hyde, Linda Lomahaftewa, Sherman Chaddlesone, Parker Boyiddle, Kevin Red Star and Bill Prokopiof, to name a few. At I.A.I.A., his sense of humor in his early works such as "Mama and Popa Have the Going Home to Shiprock Blues.", to his later works appeared to come through. Whether it was an Indian in native garb wearing sunglasses, to an Indian with a Van Gough on the wall of his house. He combined the old traditional art and incorporated it into the so-called new world, which became his style of contemporary art.

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(1947 - 1998)
“My paintings might suggest a harmony of man and nature, a combining of rigid line and free flowing spontaneity, bubbling with rich color with the disciplined design of the hard edge technique. I am not concerned with capturing the outward image of nature, but rather those powers or forces of nature which play such an important part or basis for the way things are. A concept of reality drawn from spontaneous abstractions, and controlled with the subtlety I wield as the creator.” —Earl Biss, 1995

Earl Biss, Absaroke (Crow), was born September 29, 1947, in Renton, Washington; he was raised by his grandmother at Crow Agency, Montana, and at Yakima, Washington. He contracted rheumatic fever at age eight and instead of the usual boyhood activities, he started drawing and painting. Biss’s first oils were done at age twelve, but his formal training did not start until age sixteen at the then-new Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where he studied jewelry and three-dimensional art from 1963 – 1965. After graduation, Biss received a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute where he studied oil painting.

As an artist, Biss expressed much of his emotional turmoil, embodied by his mystical, melting landscapes and people, while still admiring and studying old European masters. As a student of Fritz Scholder at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, he was exposed early in his training to the style of Abstract Expressionism as a creative and emotional outlet. As an Absaroke (Crow) Indian artist and benefactor, he was admired for his professionalism, business sense, and compassion for the Absaroke people.

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