Throughout my childhood, the Cleveland Indians were a singularly bad baseball team. Now that I know more about small-market owners, poor management and player chemistry, I understand there are all kinds of reasons a team might fail. At the time, however, I firmly believed the team’s kiss of death was its mascot.
Chief Wahoo, as he is known, does not meet the very simple criteria for mascots—namely that, once provoked, they can maim or eat you. Instead of a tomahawk or a spear, Mr. Wahoo bears only a toothy grin, his large eyes void of the animosity it requires to impale a person. He appears friendly, if slightly stoned, and I can only assume this decision was made so as not to offend Native Americans with unfair stereotypes of savagery. Problem solved!
Even so, Indians are still commodified, and it’s this kind of treatment that is at the heart of Frank Buffalo Hyde’s art.
Hyde’s solo exhibition, Continuum, at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, illustrates the cross-contamination of his Native heritage with pop culture icons. A typical composition includes a depiction of a Native figure or artifact juxtaposed with a mass-produced object, often dessert, floating amid a field of dots or bright color. He caps them with witty titles that reference pop songs. The results are hectically layered motifs, equal parts humor and anger.
Among the clutter, Hyde includes cheeseburgers, cupcakes, a bottle of Tide, archers, a man in a headdress, buffalo, iPods and Wii controllers. By jumbling commonplace objects with Native iconography, Hyde wryly comments on the depiction of his heritage; it is often treated as no more than a brand, complete with logos. Like a dessert, it is something that can be purchased and consumed. Like a video game, it is a source of entertainment for children. Like a stain, it is something that can be washed away with detergent.
The struggle in which Hyde engages is complex. When an artist addresses identity in his or her artwork, he or she risks being marginalized. The artist ceases to be an artist; he or she becomes a “Native” artist.
Perhaps this is fine for some, but Hyde understands these labels can carry with them an expectation on the part of the market, and kowtowing to expectations is a dead end as far as art is concerned. In this way, Hyde’s work is a sharp rebuke to the market’s tendency to package everything so neatly.
His palette is further proof of this. As viewers move through the room, confronted by the conflicting subjects, they won’t find anything approaching a mid-tone or neutral. It is as though Hyde doesn’t mix his paints, opting to use straight-outta-the-tube color. There is nothing nuanced here. This is advertising after all and, truth be damned, we need to get your attention.
Upstairs, the exhibition Through Their Eyes stands in stark contrast.
The artists, all of whom attended the Santa Fe Indian School in the early 20th century, embrace the qualities that Hyde rejects in his own work. They depict Native life and traditions with total sincerity. Many of the painters use gouache as their medium, and the graphic nature of the paint and the stylized postures lend the images a cartoonish feel. This impression is enhanced by the sparse compositions—empty, neutral pages in which the figures float like the overlay of an animation cell—and the hybridization of figures with animals. The skill is wonderful and, despite their age, the pictures seem downright contemporary.
All told, the shows match up nicely despite oppositional approaches. On the one hand is an exploration of the difficulties of preserving notions of traditional Native culture, on the other a celebration of those traditions.
Viewed together, they present iconography that reflects caricatures of Natives, as well as the images that informed the creation of them.
Continuum: Recent Works by Frank Buffalo Hyde
Through April 4, 2010
Through Their Eyes: Paintings from the Santa Fe Indian School
Through April 18, 2010
Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian
704 Camino Lejo