Thursday, 13 May 2010

Kent Monkman: The Triumph of Mischief

"[Native Americans may be preserved] by some great protecting policy of government... in a magnificent park... A nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!" George Catlin, landscape painter, 1832.

Kent Monkman is a gay Canadian artist of Cree ancestry. His life-partner is Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a sequined and eagle-feathered artist-anthropologist whose life's work is to undertake an exhaustive taxonomy of the European male. Miss Chief's hope is to preserve the dying culture of the European male for the edification of future generations, and possibly even to set aside some kind of "reserve" upon which European men may continue unadulterated by contact with the First Peoples of the Americas. Together, artist and alter-ego have created a body of work which most current retro-Victorian artists and craftspeople could only wish to: a technically accomplished use of historical methods and mediums that opens the narratives of colonial art to an entertaining and risque dialogue with the colonized.

Tintype portrait of the artist as Miss Chief Eagle Testickle,
Emergence of a Legend part 2 of 5 (2006).

The appeal of Monkman's work for the appreciator of historical art is twofold. On the one hand, he is an extremely accomplished artist of historical calibre. Though the quality of true historical oil painting is all-but lost, Monkman's vast and sublime mountain landscapes rendered in acrylic fire the imagination in the same way that their antiquated counterparts do. These are framed - quite literally - in the elegant manner of historical art, with gilt and velvet drapes aplenty. His only divergence is in vivid figural work that seems to draw more from the influence of comic books.

Likewise, Monkman effectively resurrects the arts of tintype photography and silent film, when his attentions turn from 19th century romantic painters to 20th century salvage anthropologists. In his short film Robin's Hood, the Sons of the Pioneers even come into play with a triumvirate of haunting songs. In another film, the twin-screen Shooting Geronimo, the style of slapstick silent film and Hollywood serials are reborn with perfection. In short, Monkman's work is no mere parody of aged mediums and genres, but legitimate new artistic entries in their own right.

On the other hand, they are no mere replications. Near perfect in their imitation of form, the characters who occupy vast European-style landscapes are culled from history, mythology and drag shows. Miss Chief leads bacchanals that lure good cowboys and Mounties out of their masculinist Euro-American and Euro-Canadian regiments and into a... discourse... with the First Nations and GLBTQ communities. As if in echo of Franz Fanon, he doesn't bother with ponderous reclamation mythologies about the nobility of Natives or of historically exalted "two-spirited" persons. As in his painting Charged Particles in Motion, Monkman's trickster-type alter-ego literally crashes through historical painting.

Scene in the Northwest, Paul Kane (1845).

Yosemite Winter Scene, Albert Bierstadt (1872).

Charged Particles in Motion, Kent Monkman (2007).

Furthermore, being First Nations and gay himself adds crucial authenticity to his work. Despite the best intentions of Euro-Canadians and Euro-Americans (or of Europeans themselves), opening up the artistic dialogue with their own tradition can only go so far. It still comes from a position of their own historical privilege and runs the risk of further romanticizing of the subject. Instead of romanticizing the masculinist and aristocratic, it may only romanticize the genuinely class oppressed. Monkman reverses the fortunes of Europe and denies that he is a subject to be romanticized. Or if anyone is going to be doing the romanticizing, it will be him.

Not that his work doesn't get bogged down at times. In both The Taxonomy of the European Male and Group of Seven Inches films (the latter a play on seminal Canadian artists "The Group of Seven"), Monkman takes a fairly obvious course: the First Nations salvage anthropologist visits Europe to chronicle the dying European male in his aboriginal habitat, outfitting him in his more authentic traditional costume of a mediaeval peasant. It runs the fine line between statement and gag, unsure of which would be the worse of the two. The true saving grace is that the salvage anthropologist in question is Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, bedecked in lipstick, high heels and shimmering Hudson's Bay Company loincloth.

Miss Chief's entry into the scene marks an ascent to trickster hilarity. She is an embodiment of camp as well as a serious salvage anthropologist of the European male. That campiness, down to pink feather-headdresses and Louis Vuitton dogsleds, is what keeps Monkman's work from becoming heavy-handed. The theatre for his films is a tipi strung together from crystal beads, the screen a lace-embroidered buffalo hide. His greatest retort to the deadly serious artists of the past is not so much the message as it is the flamboyant, wilderness Pride Parade that their work has become the backdrop for.

Cree Master 1, Kent Monkman (2002).

All works in this review are, of course, copyright Kent Monkman. However, to see more and in detail (being aware that it is mature subject matter), do visit his website.

1 comment:

Ophiucha said...

As a major in art history (a major which I needed in order to take curatorial studies, my intended profession), I must say I find him to be quite stunning. And his knowledge on art alone makes him a man worth acknowledgment, really. Thanks for sharing this. :)