March 22, 2009

Indian kitsch in Wisconsin Dells

Ho-Chunk photographer Tom Jones subverts Wisconsin Dells tourist kitschTourist kitsch trades in stereotypes. Whether they’re offensive depends on who’s doing the stereotyping.

At Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, photographer Tom Jones, a member of the Ho-Chunk people of central and south Wisconsin, turns his lens on that area’s mammoth Wisconsin Dells tourist industry.

The images presented in his exhibit, “Native Commodity,” will make you wince.

Jones brings an insider’s eye to the commodification of all things Indian at the Dells, where totem poles adorn miniature golf courses and cutouts of feather headdresses decorate cheap hotel doors.
And:By photographing the area’s barrage of Indian-themed objects and images, Jones turns the tables. Instead of white culture presenting Native American cultures as objects to be examined, this time around a Ho-Chunk photographer invites us to view the spectacle of Dells tourist culture.

His images heap irony on the ironic.

In “On the Road,” a looming red-and-white sign overlaid with neon tubing spelling “Indian” dominates a backdrop of wispy clouds and blue sky. It’s a devastatingly succinct summation of the subordination of landscape to the exigencies of commerce. The photograph also serves as a standard-bearer for one of the primary themes of this show—the tourist industry’s notion of the generic Indian, an indiscriminate lumping together of artifacts, clothing and symbols of many different Native American peoples.
Comment:  The idea of this exhibit sounds great. Critiquing the idea of the generic Indian is an obvious but still necessary endeavor.

But I'm not particularly impressed with either of the examples. I don't think Jones's photos have heightened or transformed the "irony" into something artistic.

Compare these photos to the photos of Shonie De La Rosa visiting the Running Indian. I doubt De La Rosa was trying to produce "art," but his photos say more about Indian kitsch than the photos below.

In short, we've all seen hundreds or thousands of photos of Indian kitsch. These days such photos have to be extraordinary to qualify as noteworthy art.


dmarks said...

Indians of one sort or another are also featured on vintage Dells postcards.

dmarks said...

and Rob, I'd cut Tom Jones a break. Not everyone has seen "hundreds or thousands of photos of Indian kitsch.". I've not seen one such art or photography display in person, and have not had one in my area. You sounded a bit jaded there, I think.

Rob said...

You've seen such photos in Newspaper Rock and in your postcard collection. If you count the Indians on sports logos and product packages, most people have seen a lot of Indian kitsch. I'm not sure about hundreds or thousands of examples, but I wouldn't rule it out.