August 19, 2012

The Indian Artist Grifters

by Jerome du Bois

Ron Crossguns, who works for the Blackfeet tribe’s oil and gas division has little patience for veneration of the reservation’s land. “They’re just big rocks, nothing more,” Mr. Crossguns said of the mountains. “Don’t try to make them into nothing holy. Jesus Christ put them there for animals to feed on, and for people to hunt on.” --New York Times, 8/16/2012

The Indian Artist grifters continue to shuck the suckers who buy their line of guff. Local enabler Tricia Parker helps us here with her latest yassuh-mastuh review in Phoenix New Times:

In a world where museums ask us to check our hobo bags at the desk, what's surprising is that Postcommodity was invited to bring in a concrete saw to cut a table-size square hole — a portal between worlds — in the exhibition-space floor. The slab stands on end nearby as a sort of trophy representing indigenous intervention in the face of a Western worldview. ASU Art Museum originally commissioned this work in 2009, when Postcommodity cut a neat hole in the floor of ASU Art Museum's Ceramics Research Center (a building that sits atop a prehistoric Hohokam site). That installation included a soundtrack — the collective's performance of a Pee Posh social dance song. For its Sydney show, Postcommodity reworked the soundtrack to include Aboriginal-language speakers from the New South Wales region.

She's writing about "Do You Remember When?", second verse, same as the first, save for the appropriated soundtrack. What's not surprising to me is Ms. Parker's ignorance of earlier excavation "interventions" by artists in exhibition venues. Two examples: Chris Burden's flat-footed "Exposing the Foundations of the Museum" in 1986, and the vicious nihilist Urs Fischer's "You" at Gavin Brown's Enterprise in New York City in 2007. (By the way, Burden repeated his piece in 2008. You can make fools of some of the people all of the time.) Then there's the grinning devil Maurizio Cattelan.

None of these three clowns pretend to be intervening on so-called sacred ground, to create "a portal between worlds." But the artists of Postcommodity do make such a claim. Kade Twist, Cristóbal Martinez, Raven Chacon, and Nathan Young are hucksters, commodifying the fading aura of ancestor worship so they can drum up grants, money, status, and careers. From their website:

Postcommodity are the recipients of grants from the Telluride Institute (2007), American Composers Forum (2008), Arizona Commission on the Arts (2009), Elly Kay Fund (2010), Joan Mitchell Foundation (2010) and Creative Capital (2012).

They sure know how to work it, innit? But buzzwords like Indigenous and First Nations and Native American are empty anthropological categories. All the Indians came from somewhere else, as did everyone except continental Africans. And for over a hundred years Indians have been defined by federal bureaucrats. I wonder how it feels to be reduced to line items in the budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs? Not bad, I suppose, as long as the checks clear, you have no self-respect, and you don't mind exploiting the long-gone dead.

I've come up with a third version of "Do You Remember When?", which you can read about after the jump, along with my take on their upcoming border piece.

First off, my version wouldn't be square. That's so Judeo-Christian Western Scientific, as these skins would say, and have said. Whatever happened to the sacred circle, the holy hoop? Haven't you guys read Seven Arrows, or Black Elk Speaks, or even Little Big Man? Concrete saws, which were invented by the Clovis People --or was it the Paisley People?-- I always get those two mixed up-- can definitely cut circles.

So here's what I envision: Select the ten biggest Indian casinos --sacred land, of course, by Federal definition. Find the floor space inside each one with the highest foot traffic. Cut a hole right there, seven feet in diameter and about eighteen inches deep. Ten holes, then, opening world-portals all across the land, from sea to shining sea. Make sure to have nice clean red dirt to fill the holes about a foot deep. Mounted on a stainless-steel pole in the center of each circle would be two flat-screen monitors back to back, which would rotate slowly, 24/7, even when the Paul Revere Impersonators are onstage singing "Indian Reservation." As for the content --well, hell, we've got the Kreative Kapital Krew here, innit? All I ask is that every once in awhile each one appears for about a minute or two repeatedly shouting out, "Hey, come back here! Hey, where you goin'? Hey, this is important . . . !"

Now, about that border fence thing. Ms. Parker writes:

Postcommodity's next big conceptual installation is slated for fall 2013 and meets head-on a familiar place, context, and discourse: the Mexican-American border. The project, "Repellent Fence," will involve a hunk of Tohono O'odham Nation's sacred indigenous homeland that intersects the beleaguered border and vinyl "scare eye" balloons, huge versions of the ones that farmers float in fields to repel birds.

Postocommodity hopes people will make an adventure of visiting "Repellent Fence" in person, but the collective will include extensive documentation, including videography and aerial photography.

Twist describes the installation as straddling the border like a Band-Aid. "That border fence is a huge wound that keeps people from realizing the ground beneath their feet."

Martínez offers a different analogy. "Our repellent border fence is on two different time scales. Our fence is like water. Rather than divide, it connects."

I wonder what realizing the ground beneath their feet means. And Martinez's analogy is incoherent. What they want to make isn't even a fence, just forty big balloons spaced along the border. But that's the way these guys talk, and write. To quote from their website, and if you fall asleep don't blame me:

Postcommodity’s art functions as a shared Indigenous lens and voice to engage and respond to the contemporary realities of globalism and neoliberalism. The collective seeks to move Indigenous discourse beyond exhausted dichotomies of "White" versus Indigenous and increasingly esoteric notions of de-facto political sovereignty, to more relevant and pressing issues pertaining to the assaultive manifestations of the global market and its supporting institutions, public perceptions, beliefs, and individual actions that comprise the ever-expanding, decentralized, multinational, multiracial and multiethnic colonizing force that is defining the 21st Century through ever increasing velocities and complex forms of violence. Postcommodity works to forge new Indigenous metaphors capable of rationalizing our shared experiences within this increasingly challenging contemporary environment; promote a constructive discourse that challenges the social, political and economic processes that are destabilizing communities and geographies; and connect Indigenous narratives of cultural self-determination with the broader public sphere.

Reading this crap is like slogging through a swamp choked with cattails. It stinks of academia, and it's lies, anyway, since these four Indian artists are mining the exhausted dichotomies for all they're worth.

Ms. Parker concludes:

The collective wanted "Repellent Fence," originally conceived in 2006, to be its first project.

"It's bizarre to invest that much time and effort into a project that's so ephemeral and vulnerable in one of the remote places in the Western Hemisphere," says Twist. "It will be exciting to be outside of the election year rhetoric — new Mexican leadership, possible new U.S. leadership," he trails off before adding, "At the end of the day, they're just balloons filled with air."

As are these four guys.

Now, I swear on a stack of piki that I didn't know about this 2006 project when I wrote "The Loser Tribe" in 2007, which included this section:

[Quoting the catalog for the exhibition Remix, when Steven Yazzie was still a member of Postcommodity] Yazzie, who just returned from London, says he has joined a new collective, called "Post Commodity," with Cherokee artist Kade Twist and video artist Nathan Young (Pawnee/Delaware/Kiowa).

"We went to the Czech Republic," Yazzie said, "and it was an interesting experience. We were near the border with Austria and doing an installation in a small village that had to do with border issues, like that the ones we have here with Mexican immigration and how the Tohono O'odham nation (straddles) the border in southern Arizona."

Questions of immigration and borders aren't just a U.S. issue, but something that resonates around the world.

Earlier in the article, we read this:

"We're looking for international exposure," Yazzie said, "so I don't think Santa Fe is going to work for me." [end of quote from catalog]

[Me] Yeah? Well, Steve, you sipping chocolate and nibbling sacher torte in Europe and calling it art isn't going to work for me. There aren't any political border issues between Austria and the Czech Republic. They're both members of the European Union. Citizens of both nations, and twenty-some others, are zipping back and forth every day, no problem. So your installation was both cosmetic and artificial, and all about the perfumed stink of Continental cachet. You should have been honest and called it a vacation.

It would have been a lot more real, a lot more challenging and even transgressive for you and your two buddies to foreground your installation in the other place you mentioned (you remember the Other, don't you, brother?): the borders between the US, the Tohono O'odham, and Mexico. A complicated firecracker nexus of three nations. Of course, it would have been hot and dirty and dangerous, with not a single good restaurant in a fifty-mile radius, and you three amigos would have probably got your asses handed to you by coyotes hustling illegals. . . . I picture you trying to explain to them that you're making Art, man! Ah, but it's just a dream. . . .[end of section]

These pretentious pretenders to significance want to focus on one of the most contentious issues of our time, a nexus of law versus crime, race-gaming versus human dignity, individualism versus collectivism, honest work versus extortion, national sovereignty versus criminal trespass, and lift up helium balloons as, what? an invitation to dialogue? Don't be blowing smoke up my teepee, Tonto. The coyotes and the illegals sneaking into our land don't give a stale tamale about migration patterns, context, and discourse. They want to destroy the United States of America.

You arrogant assholes.

And I believe the only people who will make an adventure of visiting "Repellent Fence" in person will be carrying rifles to bring down those big tempting targets.

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August 10, 2012

Not Even Balasanas

by Jerome du Bois

[This piece (1) criticizes the short article "Animal Magnetism" by Tricia Parker in Phoenix New Times, specifically her casual racist blindness; (2) revisits several of our earlier articles to show the continuity of a scam; and (3) draws attention to the present cynical grifter's stance struck by all the race-gamers involved.

I also note that our detailed focus on this theme --refinements in the manipulations of racial identity as a brand-- dates to the beginnings of this blog, nine years ago. I will refer to two of Catherine King's definitive early essays below.]

You'd think it was one of Coyote's tricks: convincing Indian artists they're special simply because they're Tribal. But no, nothing so clever, merely 3rd-Gen Identity Politics, as sadly pervasive in our Trashy Culture as fat people. Consider a partial list, provided by nodding bobblehead Tricia Parker (click on the names for images of their works):

Rick Bartow (Wiyot tribe of California)
Jacob Meders (Mechoopda Maidu tribe of Chico Rancheria, California)
Tiffiney Yazzie (Navajo)
Steven Yazzie (Navajo/Laguna Pueblo)
Norman Akers (Osage Nation of Oklahoma)
Fritz Scholder (Luiseno, California Mission tribe)
John Hoover (Caleut, Alaska)
Julia Buffalohead (Ponca tribe, Oklahoma)
Jerome du Bois (Poi Dog Haole, Hawai'i)
Catherine King (1/64th Chippendale, Eastern US)

Okay, not those last two. But neither Ms. Parker nor the Berlin Gallery note that Rick Bartow's mother was a white woman; Steven Yazzie's mother was a white woman; John Hoover's father was Dutch, and his mother was Russian-Aleut; Fritz Scholder was part German. (At least America Meredith, also in the show, lists her lineage as Swedish-Cherokee on her website. But Ms. Parker doesn't mention that fact.)

European and American lineage doesn't count here, only the so-called indigenous ones. Why? Because many Native American artists, and their enablers, have followed the script first worked out behind brandished shotguns by the black power thugs at Cornell U. back in 1969: ethnic identity is immutable --and, soon enough, bankable. (See Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism, pp. 163-170.)

After the feminists and gender benders transmogrified black power in academia into Identity Studies --a panther turned into pancakes-- Native Americans bought into it as well. Why not? It made the road to money and security smoother and wider. Often as not, the money came from rich white people, such as Dwight and Maie Bartlett Heard. Or from government guarantees, or grants awarded through a sulking motivation that Catherine King calls "Da Guilted Frame."

But identity studies didn't make the art any better. Consider Beverly McIver, who has traded on her blackness for her whole career, but seems to paint everything with, literally, the same broad brush.

Nor does the art in "Extraordinary Animals Revisited" stand out as inimitably Native American in any way. And most of it is lazy, with sloppy brushwork, crude anatomy, and deadpan clichés, as you may see for yourself above. (Also in Julius Baldoni's mural at ASU. More on that below.)

Ms. Parker writes:

Coyote/trickster is everywhere. Native American myths teach us that an encounter with trickster changes us in some elemental way. The artists here, who continue to revisit one of art's age-old themes --animals-- force such encounters.

Anybody out there feel elementally changed? I didn't think so. Me neither.

The theme is not just animals, anyway. Images of anthropomorphism and metamorphosis go back as far as we can see, and as wide as we can scan, from Egypt to Siberia, from Greece to Ireland, from Mexico to Australia. Native American myths have their own established place among the images we have conjured about the uncanny dreamworld that dwells between us humans and everything else. But these artists shrink from that great strange land, because they simply haven't got the soul for it. And I don't mean some special Native American soul only available to them. I refer to our common conscience, our hard-won human sense of propriety. These artists traded their souls for an ersatz political identity, because it was the easy road to acceptance by a credentialed class.

We've seen this before.

* * * * *

Who am I to talk about Indians and Indian artists? Here's a short section from a piece I wrote about Brad Kahlhamer, another part-Indian artist, back in 2004:

[His exhibition was] called "Let's Walk West." Yeah, let's walk, man, see what we can see.

Because I have, Brad. This belagana, this white guy, walked the desert between Scottsdale and Mesa dozens of times, years ago, long before you even left for the City [New York] you didn't deserve or appreciate. I've lived in hogans and teepees, I've done vision quests, sweat lodges to make you faint, I've choked the peyote down right next to the Fire Tender, I've seen the otter skins dance in the long lodges near Black River, Wisconsin, I've seen the shadows of the bears swiping their paws at the drummers, and I've wrestled with the eagle on the South Dakota plain. I have stood outside the hogan north of Window Rock in the very shank of the night, night after night, rubbing my face with stars they were so close, a reassurance in a darkness so deep and bowel-freezing one could believe in everything. What do you know, balasana? What have you learned in your walk?

I don't really need to establish my bona fides anyway. It wouldn't matter if I had never stepped onto a reservation or met a Native American. The scam remains the same. Consider Mr. Baldoni's mural. It's contained within a department at Arizona State University called American Indian Student Support Services. If you read their website you find nothing that isn't offered to other students:

The primary purpose of AISSS is to increase the retention and graduation rates of American Indian students, increase individual academic achievement levels, empower students to be resourceful, assist students to be resilient when challenged by academic pressure, provide positive social/cultural experiences and to sustain the administrative function of AISSS. In this effort, AISSS provides students a number of support services including a computer lab, links to tutorial services, study area, advising/referral service, workshops, graduate opportunities, and access to information about scholarship/internships.

But because they're Indians, they get a special resource, paid for by Arizona taxpayers. It's a grift: note the phrase to sustain the administrative function of AISSS. Don't ever forget to pay the Indian Giver.

Here's another section from a piece I wrote in 2007, called The Loser Tribe:

[begin quote] And let me give you the lowdown on the way Baker and Co. deal the racist three-card-monte: you'd think they can't have it both ways, but they do, at least with the crowd they've shucked down there [at the Heard Museum]. Consider the turgid title of the exhibition:

Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World

Let's take apart that strangulator and examine its components. "Remix" comes from early DJ culture --appropriation and sampling-- and the crucial element in those actions was respect for the original. Tip your brim, pay your respects, and don't distort the original beyond recognition. Nothing like that here. In fact, these artists insult Native American cultures from jump city, from the get-go. In fact, they insult everybody else except abject self-hating losers like them. I'll give details below.

"New Modernities" is either redundant or parodic. What would "old modernities" be? Or do you have to buy the catalog to find out? Not really; it's the oldest advertiser's trick ever: put "new" in your pitch, if not in your product. We spent our twenty bucks elsewhere.

"Post-Indian World." Here's where they want it both ways. They don't want to be stereotyped and "marginalized" as Indian artists, but they don't ever want you to forget that they're Indian artists. (Most especially on grant applications, hmmm?) Even today they will exploit a nonexistent racial barrier. Here's a quote from Joe Baker in a squib from a local rag:

“Why are indigenous artists not allowed to celebrate the present as other artists do? Why do we require of Native artists a myth or fantasy, an iconography?”

"Not allowed?" "Require"? And who is this "we" he speaks of? The white racist male hegemony monster of yore? Well, that's a straw man that doesn't exist. Any artist of any ethnicity can do anything nowadays, more's the pity, and exploit their bloodlines with mercenary grins, and Joe Baker damn well knows it. I'm surprised he isn't falling asleep in the middle of his tiresome monologue by now, so many times has he dragged this dead horse onto the Heard Museum stage, or any open mike he can find.

Hey, Loser Tribe, make up your minds: are you Indians, or Post-Indians, or Post-Non-Indians? Artists of Mixed Color? The Beige Ones? [end of quote]

They're not even balasanas, which is the Navajo word for apple --red on the outside, white on the inside. What they want is to maintain control of their manipulation of their identity, and disparage anyone who calls that manipulation into question. Let's take as an example the well-known Steven Yazzie. In 2009, in an interview for AzCentral, he said:

I've never looked at myself as a Native American artist. The time I did spend in school, I felt I was learning more about the craft from people in the community. But at some point in an artist's career, you have to decide if you're going to . . . do the things you need to do. . . . A couple years ago, I started applying to residencies. The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture really changed my life, my work.

I'll bet it did, and I'll bet a big part of it was that he was a Native American artist -- a turkey feather in the cap of Skowhegan.

The guy can do no wrong, no matter how silly his ideas. His "waterbed" with the hubcap bedspread was on the cover of the "Remix" catalog. And here's an example, from our piece "Dazed and Confused in the Glittering World," from 2007, of an even dumber idea.

[Here's the peripatetic Joe Baker, long-time miner of government sinecures, going over the top for Yazzie's ridiculous performance of driving a go-cart on the Rez and trying to draw at the same time:]

For decades, Monument Valley was used as a backdrop in Hollywood Westerns that depicted American Indians in racist terms. These films fed into a mythology of the American West in which Indians were either stoic noblemen or fierce savages. In “Draw Me a Picture,” Yazzie challenges these stereotypes of Indian identity by re-envisioning this landscape from a fresh, alert vantage point.

From the driver’s seat of a self-styled art car, Yazzie winds along a red dirt road into Monument Valley while simultaneously creating drawings-in-motion of the dramatic red rock formations passing by. Powered only by gravity, the art car is “part sculpture, part rolling studio” according to curator Joe Baker. “Fitted with an attached easel, [the car] allows the artist to be in motion while drawing the advancing landscape.” The entire process is captured on film.

“Draw Me a Picture” shatters outmoded thinking about Indians by offering a new representation of this well-known American landscape. According to Baker, “through his actions and urgent drawings of Monument Valley, [Yazzie] reclaims this picture, making it his own by creating images that are free of expectations and stereotypical gestures of ‘Indianess.’ The final result is drawing that is alert to self, place, and time.”

The final result is drawing that doesn't look even a smidgeon like Monument Valley, and an Indian so swathed in safety devices --white helmet, reflective jumpsuit, red warning flags-- you'd think he was a porcelain doll. We've come a long way from counting coup, apparently. (I know, I know, that wasn't the Navajo.) And Joe Baker's trumpeting hits all the pomo flat notes: shatters outmoded thinking --reclaims this picture-- making it his own-- alert to self, place, and time. [end of excerpt]

Yazzie thought it was such a great idea he repeated the performance in several other locations--"Glenn Canyon: The Chains; Glenn Canyon: Page; Mount Humphery: Snowbowl Road; South Mountain: Dobbins Run; Saguaro National Park"-- combined the scribblings with some videos, and the Phoenix Art Musuem bought the result.

The guy's golden. The art is crap, but it doesn't matter. As long as our Trashy Culture buys into the myth that racial identity is somehow separate from generic human identity, somehow mysteriously numinous and special, then grifters of all ethnicities will profit.

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