There are a lot of very bad Fritz Scholder paintings at the Institute for American Indian Arts Museum right now.
No, I don’t mean bad as in naughty—an apt description for many of Scholder’s works and for the way he blew the conventional view of Native American art out of the water back in the 1970s—I mean bad as in poorly executed. I mean bad as in a failure to adhere to Milan Kundera’s suggestion that the least an artist can do before he dies is to clean up after himself so that the public isn’t subjected to a slew of unfortunate errors passed off as meaningful.
However, in all fairness, there also are a lot of very good Fritz Scholder paintings at IAIA right now. To be more specific, there are a few good paintings and quite a substantial collection of excellent, exuberant, poignant, lusty, perfect etchings, lithographs, serigraphs and monotypes. Fritz Scholder: An Intimate Look is a good argument for Scholder’s mastery of graphic elements surpassing his shortcomings as a painter in terms of presenting the most effective imagery.
But then most of the prints in the exhibition are from the ’70s, after the talented young Scholder left his teaching position at IAIA and violently dismantled the status quo view of Native art and life. The work is spare but explosive, with indulgence, sex, death, loneliness and rage, and incisive in its criticism of stereotypes and the commoditization of culture.
Scholder also was able to convey great commentary and social satire without exercising great skill or making great works. His 1970 painting “White Girl with Cherokee Pendant” has minimal painterly charm, but plenty of punch that still rings true almost 40 years later.
Less enjoyable is the parade of derivative explorations: Scholder does O’Keeffe, Scholder does Rothko, Scholder does Miami Vice. Worst of all are the large, malformed figurative works from the ’80s. We’re told that these are the unblinking self-portraiture of a man wading through the honesty of his bare soul in all its manifestations, but they read a lot more like the unblinking profiteering of a man wading through the gluttony of ’80s art market and all its millions.
Segregated in the museum’s North Gallery is a collection of Scholder’s more supernatural considerations, including minotaurs, vampires, werewolves, witches and Satan—works that vacillate between quaintness and potency. Strangely, for an artist who was not raised inside the mores of Native culture, his portrayals of Christianity feel as clumsy as the cliché images of Native Americans that he openly lampooned.
Despite occasional well-executed, off-beat works, such as 1994’s “Red #11,” which appears to show a moody, stable interior, this “intimate” view of Scholder demonstrates that the ’70s was his decade to shine and that he frequently did it best through prints. Where paint stuttered, ink was absolutely fluid. Solid color accents Scholder’s compositional intuition, whereas painted backgrounds feel labored, sometimes tiresome.
Scholder continued to be a key and intelligent figure in the art world until his death and, to his credit, he never remained too stylistically stagnant for too long. But like so many whose genius blossoms brightly, the later work lost the relevance of the earlier efforts.
In the gift shop, a canvas by Micah “the Werewulf” Wesley is part oedipal assault on Scholder and TC Cannon (in which art itself assumes the role of mother), and part tiredness with the recycled nature of “Indian art.” It might be called a bit predictable, leveraging potshots at an icon, but it also is a form of ceremonial consecration. Ambitious young artists don’t waste their time jabbing at nobodies.
Wesley’s piece confirms how long Scholder’s shadow still is. The exhibition, despite several works better left out, confirms—again—that Scholder was a great American artist and a masterful printmaker.
Fritz Scholder: An Intimate Look
Through June 7
108 Cathedral Place