Jim Denomie, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe, has made a career of painting the tenuous yet ongoing assimilation of Native American and American cultures. Sometimes his observations have a playfully ironic sense of humor, other times they’re darkly acerbic. No matter the tone, his paintings share a bright palette of strong, vibrant colors, which can feel at odds with their biting humor. The colors mix but don’t merge, emphasizing painterly more than realistic qualities, reminiscent of early 20th-century modernists from Henri Matisse to Pablo Picasso to Vincent van Gogh. The facial features of his warrior couple portraits are applied with confident broad strokes, recalling such mid-century Bay Area artists as Nathan Oliviera and Joan Brown.
Jim knows there is no such thing as “just looking.” He returns again and again to the idea of the gaze, especially the colonial variety, with its intractable stereotypes, exemplified by the Peeping Tom in the bottom right of "Edward Curtis, Paparazzi–Skinny Dip.” The central group in this etching, as with many of Jim’s larger paintings, can be unpacked in a few ways. First and foremost, his composition is a cheeky lampoon of Edouard Manet's seminal "Luncheon on the Grass." Jim has swapped out the bourgeois Parisians of the original masterpiece with Native Americans. Second, by including a (suggestively placed) KFC bucket, drink cups, and picnic cooler Jim upends the bucolic scene, dispelling clichés of Native American culture being in untroubled harmony with nature.
The influence of Curtis’s photography on Jim’s work doesn’t end there. Like Curtis, Jim is prolific. He crops tightly around his portraits, focusing on the heads and torso of men, women and couples who look straight on or directly to the side. Have a look at “Woman.” Jim has kept a Curtis-esque composition but replaced the sharply focused sepia-toned photogravure with his quickly painted impasto colors. Gone are Curtis’s ethnological categories, which often included gender, name, and tribal affiliation, to draw attention instead to Jim’s distinct brush-work and how he prioritizes capturing the spirit rather than the likeness of this woman.
All of this is to say that Jim has a long view of history. And it’s the best kind of history, since it’s infused with equal parts artistic influences and cultural legacies, expressed by an artist who wears it all on his sleeve. When he pulls back, cranes up, and unfurls the view in historical narratives such as “Casino Sunrise,” he creates a busy scene of fact and fiction. Of course it’s unreal. But one quickly sees how creative exaggeration, what Jim has referred to as “mythological narrative,” is one of his best weapons. By using it here, like his favorite Surrealists, he is better able to bring stories from the past into contact with a present where some things, unfortunately and amusingly, have not changed.
Jim has talked at length about the imaginative power of his dreams. He draws extensively from his dream imagery, channeling it through his hands and into paint. So it is no surprise he is drawn to animals like horses, rabbits, and owls that have strong magical and symbolic powers. The same is true for artists and religious figures whose visions provide others with spiritual guidance. The medicine man is an important leader in Native American culture, a cynosure that was also a conduit with the spirit world, uniting what can be seen with what can be felt. This positionality, in which one moves between earthly and spiritual registers, is an ongoing fascination for Jim. He limns and lives at these boundaries. It is here, as in his surreal history scenes, that he finds a boundless realm in which to unite his interest in magic with a sense of play and a contemporary understanding of identity. It is an identity grounded at its core yet porous along the edges.
The four brightly colored riders in The Journey, with their mask-like faces, lead their horses in a slow walk through a moonlit prairie. The question built into the title is whether they have just started or finished their travel. What we do know is that they are not at home. These travelers are the listless ghosts who haunt the lands from which native populations were displaced. There were many battles fought over competing claims of ownership, but ultimately Native Americans were forced to relocate to sundry reservations. The traumatic consequences of this chapter of American history are a cultural haunting that can still be felt today.