June 17, 2008

"The Triumph of Mischief"

Mischief Maker:  Kent Monkman Revisits HistoryFrom a distance, Kent Monkman’s large-scale paintings of majestic landscapes and heroically posed figures could pass as examples of the florid Romantic art that advanced the 19th-century myth of North American civilization’s triumphant westward expansion. Take a closer look, though, and the works of Monkman—a Manitoba-bred artist of Swampy Cree and Irish-English descent—open up to present a very contemporary take on how history works.

The Triumph of Mischief—which originated as a collaborative project between the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and is currently on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery—features paintings and multimedia works from the last five years.

“The whole document of art history was essentially a whitewashing of the genocide and displacement of many nations of people,” says the 42-year-old Monkman, who has been based in Toronto since 1982. “In my work, I’m constantly investigating and researching, finding information to take back to the art and to insert narratives that were never painted.” Within their ornate gilded frames, these tragicomic encounters between First Nations people, Mounties, explorers, cowboys and Wild West showmen are funny, sexed-up and seriously subversive.
Monkman's own take on his work:

Tonto Takes Charge

Miss Chief Eagle Testickle:  a portrait.“In the Romantic period, we were painted out of the narratives, and in Modernism it was further ensured that aboriginal narratives wouldn’t enter the canon, by deconstructing painting’s ability to tell stories. Paul Kane’s work is still the untouchable voice of authority. I mean, look at those paintings, the buckskinned Indians under thundering clouds, with rearing horses, straight out of a Jacques-Louis David painting. It’s just bizarre, right? The American painter George Catlin wanted to found this park where aboriginal people would live forever frozen in time, in classic attire, hunting buffalo and elk, where the refined of the world in future ages could come and observe them—Jurassic Park, basically.

“The reason I respond to these artists is because I think their work is important. It’s worth examining that whole period of art, so purely one-sided, like a big cover-up of what was really happening. I try to approach it with humour, focusing on the side of art culture that is about survival and being able to adapt, and to look forward. It’s a very gentle way of making people aware of this huge obliteration of our narratives. Bringing together these different ways of seeing and recording history in one painting makes you aware of how you can interpret it through the images that you create.
Comment:  Follow the first link to see a slide show of the exhibit.

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