Goldsmiths Curatorial Critique

Kent Monkman

Posted in Reviews by matteopollini on October 15, 2008


This month, the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London is showing a selection of new works by the Canadian Artist Kent Monkman. At a first glance, the unquestioned protagonist of this exhibition is Nature, which dominates almost all the available space of the largest paintings, leaving the human presence far from the very centre of the image, in fact left at the bottom of the composition. As a matter of fact, when Monkman decides to focus his attention on human subjects, he decreases the size of the paintings and removes the presence of Nature positioning the subjects in front of a neutral background. However, in both cases Monkman’s aim is to offer an opportunity to reflect upon human cultures and their consolidated clichées, refering to Cultural Anthropology and more specifically to the Nature-Culture debate.

In the main exhibition room, a series of small portraits is placed between the larger landscape paintings. In one of these works, “Two Crows, A Band Chief with Tinselled Buck No. 7,429” (2008), the vivid image of the subject almost obscures a blurred second presence, a spirit or, more likely, a representation of the Culture of the Native American. These manifestations of the presence of Culture(s) are very much defined and increase in number in the landscape scenes. Interestingly enough, the white men populating the scenes are not able to see these presences – and we know it for, at a closer look, there is no trace of them on the canvas of the painter depicted in “Clouds in the Canyon” (2008). All this painter is able to see and perceive is the immensity of the landscape of the American West. Thus, the incapacity of seeing (therefore understanding) is a prerogative of the human who tries to find Culture within the Nature.

Consequently, in “The Treason of Images” (2008) and “Forest with Trees” (2008) the artist-explorer is depicted in the attempt to capture an image with the help of another much neutral device: a camera. We are not given the privilege of knowing what will appear in the pictures taken, but we can suppose that the small portraits – in which the presence is actually visible – have been painted using those shots as a guide. Native Americans, cameras and eventually cine-camera bring our thoughts to the last years of XIX century, when anthropologists Lewis Henry Morgan and Franz Boas tried to collimate the alleged gap between Cultures, not aware that in this attempt they probably stretched it even more. Kent Monkman has declared that his new works were inspired by his studies of the artist and anthropologist George Catlin (1796-1872) who, ‘with the zeal of a missionary, set about “documenting” aboriginal tribespeople across North America as they faced the threat of extinction’, an attempt not dissimilar from what the movie director in the double-screen projection positioned at the end of the exhibition is trying to do, shouting to his actors ‘More Authentic!’,disappointed by the dance movements the two Native Americans are performing in front of the cine-camera – a dance he considers not enough folkloristic or “typical”. Doing so, Monkman places the European colonialist ambition and therefore cultural identity under scrutiny; the past should be revaluated and history understood as the result of the collision of fact and fiction.

 The exhibition starts before entering the Friedman Gallery when, walking toward the glass door and windows, the eye encounters Monkman’s works and misjudges them as generic nineteenth century paintings of landscapes. Once the gallery’s threshold is crossed, the viewer realizes how superficial and hasty his/her judgement was. A closer inspection is needed, and it is precisely this moment of physical approach that enables the decoupling of the artistic operation of the works and its shifting into the exhibition space. In this perspective, the blindness of the painter, the photographer and the director-cameraman could be considered as a double of a situation we have already experienced before getting close enough to appreciate – for the fact that we are able to see – the multitude of elements that constitute the picture.

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