When I first taught the art of Kent Monkman at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, the air in the classroom was thick with discomfort. Cavorting cowboys wearing assless chaps romped across vast Bierstadt-esque landscapes with stereotypical Indians by their sides. It was not what we had seen up until that point: triumphant settlers, roving expeditionaries in the vein of Lewis and Clark, and marauding Indians. This was a “Landscape in the Americas” class, and most of what we’d spoken about and critiqued was the inextricable relationship between envisioning pristine landscapes and the aspirations of Manifest Destiny, the fantasies and projections of imperialism cloaked in the beauty of landscape painting.
Fast forward to our class on Monkman, a First Nations artist of Cree descent, who queered the whole template of 19th-century masculinity and landscape, calling out the genre's own shadowy subconscious. The artist's alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a figure he paints into his scenes and one he also performs as, seemed an apt guide. For Monkman, Miss Chief "travels through time and exists in different periods of art history and history. ... It's her way of stitching together" the components that "relate to Indigenous people." Her travels take her across the Americas.
Miss Chief could again be glimpsed in the latest opening of the artist's work at Peters Projects. In Fate is a Cruel Mistress, a photo series in collaboration with Chris Chapman, the alter ego plays the role of "five female archetypes:" Jezebel, Delilah, Potiphar's Wife, Judith and Salome. The prints are part of a larger series titled Shame and Prejudice, which deals with the period of Confederation in Canada.
The title series, The Rendezvous, demands the most space, with large-scale canvases that double as stages for capricious revelry. The series is based upon the work of Alfred Jacob Miller, an American painter who traveled west of the Mississippi in 1837. He was one of many artists, including George Catlin, who put brush to canvas in an attempt at capturing Native life before Manifest Destiny would fully realize. This era was marked by Andrew Jackson's forced removal of the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee and Seminole in the Trail of Tears.
Still, as Miller's paintings show, there were realms far beyond the reach of Jackson and the American government. Traders, trappers and Indigenous peoples came to their own pacts in these frontier spaces, especially in what Miller later described as "a grand carouse," or the rendezvous. On the confluence of the Green River and Horse Creek in what is now Wyoming, beaver pelts and buffalo robes could be exchanged for rifles, blankets, supplies and alcohol. It was, in other words, a frontier bacchanal that spanned only a few weeks. In a filmed talk from the VOLTA NY invitational fair, which plays on a loop in the exhibit, Monkman says, "People would get married. People would die. People would be born. They would celebrate their religious rituals. They would gamble. They would drink, carouse, trade."
The event was fertile ground for an artist known to transpose lesser-known histories with Biblical episodes and mythological figures. Indeed, Greek and Roman lore are familiar friends of the American West in Monkman's visions. Take for instance his version of the three graces. The goddesses of charm, beauty and creativity are, in his hands, three Indigenous women. Also from the looped video: "In Canada, there is a lot of violence against Indigenous women. We have over 1,300 missing and murdered Indigenous women. This paintings really speaks to the power of Indigenous women."
In the painting "Saturnalia," based upon the Roman festival of Saturn, you'll see men in drag wearing laurel wreaths and falling into each other's arms. "Wedding at Sodom" opens into a scene of a priest presiding over the union of two frontiersmen. "Baptism By Fire" depicts a story of one man doused in whiskey and lit on fire. It was a story Monkman came across in his archival research. Of the find he thought: "This is a kind of baptism by fire."
With detail for days, translucent washes of oil to create luminosity, and a whole cast of characters (some of Monkman's studio assistants stand in as the paintings' models), the series reminds us that history shouldn't be beholden to our contemporary social norms regarding divisions in race, class and gender. Indeed, history, according to Monkman, is filled with the whimsy of real people.
Kent Monkman: The Rendezvous
Through Sept. 2. Peters Projects,
1011 Paseo de Peralta,