“Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party” by Tom Huff

detail view of Tom Huff’s “Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party,” 2011.

“Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party” by Tom Huff

A number of exhibitions at Santa Fe’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts are about to close on July 31st. I’ve seen images of Tom Huff’s piece elsewhere on the web, but took a short video showing the work from all sides while the turntable is in motion. Perhaps this documentation would be useful to a scholar or student interested in the work who did not get to visit the museum in person.

Tom Huff, who is Seneca, created this artwork for the exhibition  Under the Influence – Iroquois Artists at IAIA (1962-2012). IAIA is the acronym for a college in Santa Fe:  Institute for American Indian Art. IAIA began as a two-year college in 1962 and celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year. It has changed a great deal over the years, including growing from a two-year to a four-year college and expanding its campus, acquiring and renovating an historic building into a museum, and building new, state-of-the-art collection storage facilities for its museum, MoCNA.[1]

The exhibition Under the Influence is part of museum programming this year that brings to light some of IAIAs history through the use of artworks in their collection and artworks solicited from former students. Once the current exhibitions come down, 50/50: Fifty Artists, Fifty Years goes up just in time for the 2012 Indian Art Market, on August 17th.

There is a strong sense of very positive regionalism associated with IAIA and its museum. Santa Fe’s art market in general has a strong sense of regionalism. Strong artistic and artisanal practices from the state’s pueblos help maintain that sense of regional identity. The exhibition Under the Influence – Iroquois Artists at IAIA (1962-2012) foregrounds the college’s role as an educational center responsible for bringing together Native American (and First Nations) students from a wide variety tribes and cultural traditions into a shared location. Tom Huff’s turn-table based artwork, titled Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party, has stuck in my mind since seeing the exhibition, not just because it has a central location at the entrance to the exhibition space, but because it has a strong narrative component in addition its moving parts.  The fictional sidekick “Tonto” is currently at the center of debates around the representation of Native peoples through television and movies.[2] As in television and film, the Lone Ranger is the center of the universe. While other parts are in motion and have context, Huff’s Lone Ranger stands immobile – no “ranging” involved. Tonto is represented by a plastic toy Indian  riding a skateboard around the perimeter of the record player’s turntable. The title makes Tonto the center of the action, claiming both revenge (very serious) and dance party. The dance party may actually be equally serious. Reading the text written over the case for the record player reveals a seriousness to the party – putting the “party” into context with the history of IAIA and the history of Native American art. Huff learned stone carving while at IAIA and continues to work with stone as well as mixed media. The text reads in part,


Another section includes a photograph of Allan Houser with the caption “THE GODFATHER OF CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN SCULPTURE.”

Tom Huff attended IAIA in 1979 and then earned a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 1984. He’s been involved with Atlatl, exhibited his stonework internationally, and curated the exhibition Haudenosaunee Elements at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY. Huff was Artist-In-Residence at SUNY Empire State College in 2011.

Tom Huff was only at IAIA for one year, but that year clearly had a lasting impact. If you have the chance to visit MoCNA before Under the Influence closes on July 31st, I highly recommend it. If you can visit the museum again during SWAIA’s 91st Indian Art Market in August, even better! Tom Huff’s Tonto’s Revenge Dance Party is definitely a work worth hunting for, as are many others in the exhibition.

[1] A major resource for the history of IAIA is Joy L. Gritton’s book, The Institute of American Indian Arts: Modernism and U.S. Indian Policy, published in 2000 by University of New Mexico Press. The notes and bibliography are extensive and useful, although the book only covers the inception of the school through 1968. An accounting of the college’s history and analysis of its role in art and education deserves greater attention and scholarship than it has yet received.

[2] The blog Native Appropriations has a number of postings on the subject of Tonto. http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/2012/03/why-tonto-matters.html from March 2012 contains links to a number of other articles/blogs related to the subject.

Video Installation – Kateri Tekakwitha

One of the current exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe right now is a selection of recent works created in response to the history of Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), an early Mohawk-Algonquian convert to Christianity. She is beatified by the Catholic church  and is in the process of canonization. I will be writing more about this exhibition and other work currently on exhibition at MoCNA – but time runs short! I took a brief segment of video of Marcella Ernest’s video installation work and wanted to make that available sooner, rather than later. The full video is four minutes long and is projected on a screen of pasted-together pages from a bible. I only have 30 seconds of it in the video above. It’s worth viewing in person. If you stand close to the screen, you can easily read the biblical passages. This work deals with Kateri’s physical disfigurement from smallpox scars and her exercise of physical mortification as part of her devotion to her new religion.

The works in Soul Sister examine the complexity of responses to Kateri Tekakwitha, from analytical to devotional.

To see the work in person, visit the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe.


And what do we see here?

Look for this view at the exhibition “It’s Complicated – Art about Home” at Evergreen Gallery in Olympia, Washington tonight.

There have been a number of requests for installation views of the exhibition opening at The Evergreen State College’s Gallery tonight (5-8pm, TESC campus in Olympia, Washington). The photo above is a tease… you’ll have to do some serious “looking” inside the gallery to find this view.

Works worth Hunting For at SAM, Part II

George Morrison, Painting #12, Pacific, 1952. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Bodlaender Family in memory of Hesi and Hans Bodlaender, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum. 2007.83

This essay is a continuation of a previous entry: Four Small Works Worth Hunting For at SAM.

George Morrison once told Margot Fortunato Galt, “I never played the role of being an Indian artist. I always just stated the fact that I was a painter and I happened to be Indian. I wasn’t exploiting the idea of being Indian at all, or using Indian themes […] But as my work became better known, some critics would pick up on my Indian background, and they’d make something of it. I guess they were looking for a way to understand my work.”[1]

It may seem odd then, to find Morrison’s work displayed in the Native American wing of the art museum. Morrison consistently downplayed his cultural background when it came to talking about his art. He was raised in Chippewa City, Minnesota, in a Native village located near the Grand Portage Reservation. He was one of twelve children and described growing up in a crowded house, often hungry and sickly. Morrison knew his language, and Gerald Vizenor’s essay, “George: Morrison: Anishinaabe Expressionism at Red Rock” in the book Native Modernism: The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser does a useful bit of unpacking of the complex associations between the parts of speech related to colors in the Anishinnabe language. Vizenor gave as an example “ozhaawzashko, a word that means blue and green, the transcendence of a bruise; ozhaawashko aniibiish, ‘green tea”; and ozhaawashko bineshiinh, ‘bluebird.’”[2] Look back at Painting #10 in the previous post in this series, at the greyish blues and greens and think about ozhaawashko for a moment. I think it takes you to a very different place than the formal analysis I wrote about that piece.

Just about everything that I have written on Morrison here has emphasized his cultural background and has disregarded his stated desire to be considered an artist first and foremost. Everyone who has written about his work has pretty much done the same thing. Why? Doesn’t it come across as disrespectful to the artist’s wishes? I know… most art historians/art critics would say that it doesn’t matter what the artist says. Personally, I think that what an artist has to say about his or her work IS important. I will try to explain what is important about Morrison’s insistence on prioritizing his identity as an artist, and why we acknowledge that statement and then promptly stick him in the category of “Indian Artist.”

Harrison Begay (Navajo) The Weavers, c. 1952, 14-3/4 x 21-1/4 inches, Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection, No. 1996.27.0219, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City

You might be tempted to say that Morrison ends up in the Indian artist category because of racism. That assessment is too simplistic. At the time when Morrison was deep into the abstract art movement in Paris and New York, Indian art was a very narrow category. Education reform and changes in Federal Indian policies that came about in the early twentieth cenury led to a fairly standardized set of expectations about what Indian painting should look like. Dorothy Dunn’s Santa Fe Studio School educated young Native artists in a particular style. Market expectations of Indian art limited the work to fairly flat, stylized depictions of traditional scenes devoid of markers of modernity. Regional emphasis was on the traditions of the plains and the southwest, with Dorothy Dunn’s Santa Fe Studio School and Oscar Jacobson’s studio program for Kiowa artists at University of Oklahoma serving as anchors for what the public thought of as Indian painting at the time. The subject matter encouraged by Jacobson and Dunn kept the students connected to their cultural history and values. Creating these easel paintings supported their cultural identity even in the midst of a mostly-assimilationist educational project. The subject matter appealed to a non-Native market because it was inoffensive and fit in with American romantic and nostalgic desires for a primitive utopia, a mental getaway from industrialization and urbanization. Visually, Morrison’s work looked nothing like the Indian art of that period. Harrison Begay, one of Dorothy Dunn’s very successful students, painted Weavers the same year that Morrison created Painting#12, Pacific. Considering the differences in style and content, it makes sense that Morrison did not classify his work as Indian art. He would resist the label Indian artist the same way he would resist being labeled an Impressionist artist. Of course, there is no racial prejudice against Impressionist artists. That’s where the issue of Indian, artist, or Indian artist gets sticky.[3]

This essay isn’t about how Indian artists can’t get a fair shake, though. This essay is about Morrison and the four paintings in the Seattle Art Museum. After explaining Morrison’s success as part of the avant garde art movement and his resistance to being labeled an Indian artist, you might expect me to be up in arms that these four works aren’t hanging over in the modern art section as part of SAM’s exhibition on abstraction. These four works are certainly good enough to hang there. They would fit right in.

The reason I’m fine with these four paintings by Morrison being displayed in the Hauberg Galleries of Native Art for the Americas is because I’ve been thinking a lot about an essay by Alfred Young Man in [Re]inventing the Wheel: Advancing the Dialogue on Contemporary American Indian Art. Yes, this book was published in 2006, but I’m a slow thinker. Young Man’s chapter, “Segregation of Native Art by Ethnicity: Is it Self-imposed or Superimposed?” covers a lot of ground, mostly using examples from situations that have arisen in relationship to exhibitions in Canada. It’s good (controversial) reading and definitely worth a long think. Young Man argues that ending the segregation of contemporary Native artists, basically enfolding them seamlessly into mainstream, would provide equity to Native artists, but would have some unintended consequences. Young Man makes a call for the development of a history of Native art based on Native perspectives. If we take the works out of the Indian gallery, then we lose the ability to see associations, links, patterns, in our artistic practices over time and geography. There is a lot of inter-tribal and inter-cultural relations that are negotiated in the realm of art. We lose the ability to craft our own narrative of where are art-making has been and where it might be going if we only see our work in relationship to Brancusi, Picasso, Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keefe. I don’t think limiting Native art to the Indian wing is a good idea, either. Ideally, works should move back and forth between the Modern wing and the Indian wing (or any dang wing). There are reasons for displaying in multiple categories. I still agree that it is a problem if we never get our work into the Modern, the contemporary, or the “hot new thing” gallery.

For Morrison’s work, I think it is important at this moment (and this moment has been decades long) to display his work in the context of Native art precisely because his work in the 50s and 60s was so far outside of the realm of what people at the time thought Indian art could or should be. A handful of Native artists, Morrison, Allan Houser, Oscar Howe, Helen Hardin, Patrick Desjarlait, for example, found some degree of success making work that did not fit with the prevailing market pressures that attempted to narrowly define Native art. Their work encouraged other Native artists to make their work in any style, on any subject they chose. This is why we consistently talk about Morrison as an Indian artist, and also talk about his resistance to that label. His insistence on being an artist first is an important political statement for the time-period in which he began his career. That statement is still important, but it is also important to still include him in the Indian category because his groundbreaking work influences Native art today. Morrison is part of our developing narrative of a Native art history.

Sure, I’d like to sneak any of these four works into the modern abstraction gallery. I wouldn’t want it to live there forever, though. Morrison’s work could (and should) visit a number of different galleries within the museum, but the home for it that has the most potential to change peoples’ lives is a room full of Native American art.

Displaying a variety of Native American all together isn’t what will make a Native sense of Native art history develop. That will require us to talk about the works, to talk about how the works are displayed, and to write about all those conversations. As more Native people find work in museums, make our own museums, curate our own work, write essays, books, art criticism, exhibition reviews, and yes, blog entries, we will slowly build our own history of art. It’s happening, but like any consensus project, it will take a long time, and the process will never end. This doesn’t mean that only Native artists, writers, thinkers should do this work. We don’t live in a Native-only world. Influence can and should go both ways. I love Paul Chaat Smith’s blunt way of putting things:

The prevailing code of how Indian contemporary art should be presented…strongly advises that Indian artists should be in a group exhibition with other Indians. The code also advises that only Indians have authority to speak on Indian issues…The proper role of a white curator is to facilitate the neutral presentation of Indian artists and their work, and to have no real opinion on the content…The code has been in effect for a couple decades now and to state things bluntly, it feels deader than disco.[4]

It’s time to have an opinion, even if we change our minds later.

[1] Gerald Vizenor, “George Morrison: Anishinnabe Expressionism at Red Rock,” from Native Modernism: The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser, edited by Truman Lowe, (Washington, DC: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, 2004) p. 44.

[2] Vizenor, p. 40.

[3] To unpack the contents of this paragraph would really take about 10 footnotes with and about twenty different sources. These topics have been written about in many good publications. I made a quick poke around for one book that sort of hits all these points in a way that is accessible for a general audience is Bill Anthes book Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940-1960, published in 2006 by Duke University Press. This book will lead you to a host of other sources.

[4] Paul Chaat Smith, “Americans Without Tears,” from Everything you Know about Indians is Wrong, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009) p. 73.

Addendum to “Works Worth Hunting For”


George Morrison, Painting #10, Abstract, 1955. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Bodlaender Family in memory of Hesi and Hans Bodlaender, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum. 2007.82

My previous post, Four Small Works Worth Hunting for at SAM, was about Painting #10, Abstract, by artist George Morrison. The Seattle Art Museum has very kindly provided me with a much better image of the painting. The new image has much better resolution and color balance, but does not show how the work is framed. I decided to use both images on the site. I think the framing matters, but actually being able to see the fine detail in the work is crucial!

Four Small Works Worth Hunting for at SAM

George Morrison, Painting #10, Abstract, 1955. On view at SAM Downtown

I visited the Seattle Art Museum last week. I go there often, usually supervising a college field trip. Naturally, I gave my students an assignment, which meant that I  had work to do at the museum, but I also took some time to do a bit of looking for my own enjoyment. I found myself in a section of the museum that I tend to think of as a back alley. Alleys are all about function, you know, things enter and leave…it’s the business behind the business.  In this case, it’s a hallway near a bank of elevators. These elevators are for staff and freight. Suits and guards come and go down this hallway. Yet, it is also exhibition space. Farther down the hall is a selection of Australian Aboriginal art, and the gallery next to this hallway is for the collection of Native American art.  Sure, it’s a bit awkward, but dang it all, there’s a long flat wall space and it’s a museum, so there better be stuff hanging on that wall!

Well, I spent a good half hour loitering there near the elevators. The four paintings were actually worth looking at for that long, and the wall text that accompanied the works was worth reading, too. If you still want to go look at the paintings after you read this, you can refer to the diagram at the end of this entry. You will probably need the map to find these particular works.

These four paintings are early works by George Morrison, a Chippewa artist, who was born in 1919 and passed away in 2000. To my recollection, this is the firt time I’ve seen his work in person, rather than in a book. The title for this small exhibition is “George Morrison, Native Modernist.” All of the works are fairly small, nothing larger than two feet by three feet. Morrison was already part of the New York art scene when he made Painting #10, Abstract. He was hanging out with Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning, as the wall text informs us. His work was exhibited alongside works by Josef Albers and Louise Bourgeois in a Federation of Modern Painter’s exhibition that year, too. This is an artist in the thick of things, who had gone to Paris on a Fulbright in 1952. He studied art at home in Minnesota, at what is now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and then received scholarships to continue his work in New York and in Paris. He returned to Grand Portage, Minnesota in the 1970s and lived and worked there until his death in 2000. He is perhaps best known for his collaged wood sculptures, but he primarily considered himself a painter. If you look at enough of his work in wood and his work in paint, you can see that his sense of space and composition is consistent whether he is working in two-dimensions or three.

George Morrison, Cube, 1988. In the collection of the Minnesota Museum of American Art

Morrison generally does not employ a conventional figure-ground relationship. His abstract work seldom gives the sense of an object surrounded by empty space. Morrison’s space always has weight to it, so much so that all parts of the composition function as the figure. This is a fairly widespread aesthetic in Native art – a habit of thinking of the importance of all parts of an animal, or a made-object, where no aspect of a physical object  is truly empty of meaning. A portion of a surface that is left undecorated is done so deliberately, because the natural surface holds a symbolic and practical function. There is no such thing as “empty” space. This kind of dense handling of space is what made Morrison’s abstract work in the 1950s stand out and stand on its own.  Many of his works are abstract landscapes, but the density of form and the absence of the usual signifiers of landscape (empty air, a horizon line) disturb our expectation that a picture functions as a window upon the world.

Figure-ground relationships aside, Morrison’s work shows an uncanny ability to create visual balances the feel right, even though the usual compositional aesthetics that we teach in art classes say that his composition should NOT work. In Painting #10, Abstract, for example, Morrison used an intensely red area for a large area of the canvas, taking up more  half of the right side. The rest of the canvas is dark browns and muddy greens. This kind of composition is supposed to produce something off-balance and dis-harmonious. And yet it doesn’t. Why is that? Morrison varied the intensity of the red, with a vaguely squarish section made from a tint of red (adding white to a color produces a tint of that color). Another section to the left of the most intense red is made from a shade of the same red (adding black to a color produces a shade of that color). The painting’s composition is unbalanced, but it feels right because of the subtle angles created by the forms and because of the equally subtle variations in the intensity of the red color and the adjustment of relative warmth of the darker colors. He used a warmer brown tone on the right lower section and greener forms against the darkest area of the canvas. The value contrast and the use of complementary colors (green and red) make the composition work overall. The wide dark frame also helps balance the composition – restraining the red sections within a comfortingly regular geometric form.

I’ll be posting another blog entry later this week on the next work worth hunting for. I am holding off on posting the rest until I  get good images of the works from the Seattle Art Museum. The Minnesota Museum of Modern Art has a large collection of works by Morrison and is organizing a travelling exhibition. For more information, see the comments sections.

This entry has an ADDENDUM (better image of Painting#10) and there is a PART II to this essay.

Location of Morrison's "Painting #10, Abstract" is shown by the red X