MYSYSYPYN Nemeth Art Center May 4th - July 15th, 2017
The MYSYSYPYN is a platform for exchange and art exhibitions on the histories, cultures, and lands along the Mississippi River. First Colony is the second in an ongoing series. Staged near the Mississippi headwaters, the exhibition of contemporary art and historical pieces continues an exploration of America’s colonial interior. First Colony makes use of Nemeth Art Center’s holdings: old European masters and African arts and craft works. First Colony features multigenerational artists working with unconventional media who offer contemporary readings of imperialism by Aaron Spangler, Damien Davis, Joan Bemel Iron Moccasin, Jon Gomez, and Kelly Sena.
The exhibition has three inspirations each fostering innumerable counter narratives. The title references the United States’ first colony, which was neither a Pacific paradise nor a Caribbean canal but the Midwest. What began as the Old Northwest Territory, established in 1787, became the modern states of Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), Michigan (1837), Wisconsin (1848), and Minnesota (1858). The amalgamated land would have been contested by European proxy wars for over a century by the time it was absorbed.
A second inspiration is Minnesota History. Within this first colony, from 1787 to 1858, Minnesota secluded the deepest of imperial domains—not just in North America but perhaps the world. Hopelessly landlocked, Minnesota remained an obscurity. Steamboats that rolled up the Mississippi in the 1800s found St. Louis a commercial and cultural cutoff. Even the many-tiered path of the Great Lakes would not be truly opened by seaway until 1959. Outsiders who did come here went to the inner ring of a budding empire yet to manifest. We might imagine, then, that when Henry Schoolcraft so-named Lake Itasca in 1832 he found his own insufferable Midwest notion of what would later be Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness.
A third concern is a chapter in Modern art history. The fabled and fraught 1931 Surrealist exhibition “The Truth about the Colonies” resorted to championing African, Oceanic, and Native American art in an effort to draw attention to French imperialism. As with many Modern Anti-Imperialist efforts by white artists, the subversive exhibition amounted to a reinforcement of colonial narratives. The organizers of the immediately infamous show did their militant duty by turning away from legacy of imperialism—against the harms of capitalism, against the fictions of supremacy, against the cleanliness of French paradigms that then governed the national mindset. Rather than revolution, an imperceptible impulse to turn away guided these Surrealists. Today the desire to turn away has never been stronger for the conscientious observer and progressive spirit. Peeling away has always been elemental to empire. Outsiders who first came to Minnesota knowing no harm knew nonetheless, subconsciously or otherwise, that they were turning away.
As any collective logic guiding the U.S. becomes increasingly remote, First Colony considers where to turn under the urgent conditions of the Midwest’s ongoing colonization.
Minnesota artist Joan Bemel Iron Moccasin received her B.F.A. from the University of Minnesota and has been awarded the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, the Dakota Center For the Arts Award, the WARM Juror's Recognition Award, and the Katherine E. Nash Purchase Prize. Her work blends avant-garde assemblage strategies reminiscent of Surrealism with 21st-century indigenous patterns, artwork and craft. These postmodern parcels draw on the hybrid origins of her family and extensive explorations of Western art history in her studio practice.
Artist Kelly Sena (M.F.A., Cal Arts) has exhibited in her native California, the U.S. and Europe in many mediums. Her work has been inspired by prison reform, the radical Left, feminism, and environmentalism, including her sprawling photo-missive For the Wild about incarcerated eco-warriors (2012). Sena currently resides in Austria and in 2013 traveled to Romania. Once in the legendary wildness of the Carpathian Mountains, Sena interpolated a wolf-hunting party. In one of Europe’s last remaining refuges for the apex predator she made the searing Untitled, Aktion, featuring a tallow-smeared figure hooded by a freshly slain wolf. It is a powerful permutation in which the bloody theatrics of the 1960s Viennese Actionists meet Sena’s modernization of huntress deities, such as Atalanta seen on the far left hand side of the Old Masters gallery hanging (after Rubens).
Local sculptor Aaron Spangler (B.F.A., Minneapolis College of Art and Design) has shown widely across the U.S. and the region. His large-scale sculpture joined the permanent Walker Art Center sculpture garden collection for its 2017 reinstallation. Spangler’s collectors include the Hammer Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Weisman Museum, and the Rubell Family Collection as well. Here his totemic Usher calls to mind everything from African relics to the primitive armors worn by medieval knights. It is not a specific symbol but a mysterious unknowable thing, prepossessingly smooth, imposing and inscrutable. More than talisman, Usher recalls Spangler’s earliest apprenticeship with sawyers in the Two Inlets saw mill and the woodwork that has defined his unconventional sculpture practice since the late-1990s.
Damien Davis (M.A., New York University) is a Brooklyn-based emerging artist. Recent awards, residencies and commissions include the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Program, the Art & Law Program Fellowship, Prattsville Art Center residency, and the MoMA PopRally Arty Gras. Davis’ 2D and 3D works evidence the bleeding edge of technology to repackage historical representations of blackness. Highly refined glyphic collages explore and export the visual language of various cultures to synthesize how representations of race are recoded and reified through fashion, design and digital media in our time.
Jon Gomez is a Mexican-American multimedia artist and recent M.F.A. graduate from New York’s School of Visual Arts. As an artists born in Los Angeles and raised in Mexico, his works travel freely between the universals of Southern California and the lived reality of Latin American communities. Landscapes that predate U.S. expansionism often feature in his recent installations—lands that frame the evolution of immigration, identity, and nationalism in 21st-century America. Family Album, 2016, applies acrylic on found photographs. The deceptively simple gesture results in a suite of powerful photos that portend a foregone conclusion: an erosion of racial symmetry within the nuclear families and dominant cultures of 1950s and 1960s that here date abandonment.
Historical Material George Shrias Raymond Garceau The Nemeth Art Collection
Pennsylvanian George Shiras (1859–1942) pioneered wildlife photography on voyages to the Upper Midwest and pictured the depth of wilderness around the Great Lakes still evident at the turn of the century. He used large flashbulb apparatuses on tripwires to capture his unsuspecting subjects. Beauty that had been only written about for centuries appears photographed in nocturnal minimalism. Practically speaking, Shiras relied on the age-old tactics of outsiders. Regional hunters and especially Indian guides lead him to animal quarries. Exhibited photos were taken in Michigan, Ontario and Minnesota, some of which appeared in the 1900 Worlds Fair.
Raymond Garceau’s La Drave shows the Gatineau River, a premodern byway to the Great Lakes and Minnesota. The Gatineau flows to the Ottawa—a tributary draining in the Saint Lawerence at Montreal. Made in 1957 in the Outaouais Valley on the boarder of Quebec and Ontario, La Drave romanticizes lumberjacks of a bygone era. La Drave joins the exhibition to celebrate Realism and the arts of workingmen. It is also a reminder of how L'Étoile du Nord first came to be. It joined the modern world when it was clearcut, the Mississippi clogged with cannons of pine, oak and elm processed in saw mills powered by Saint Anthony Falls in the heart of Minneapolis.
The Nemeth’s holdings African artsand craft works were purchased between 1963 and 1965 by Donald and Ruth Metz in Nigeria, where traders would enter the Metz’ compound to sell their wares. Masks, mortar & pestle, Yoruba dolls, battle axes, helmets, ivory carvings, musical instruments and agate beads are among the objects gathered from across the country. Acquisition notes include discussion of the contextual nature of African artwork and corresponding regional distinctions dividing Nigeria at the time (they were the Northern, Western, Eastern and Mid West Regions). The collection is shown here as a kodak carousel slideshow—itself a relic and time capsule.
Central to First Colony is the stunning Nemeth Art Center’s Old European Master paintings hung salon style for the exhibition. The collection presents a panoply of European Myths Gods, Saints and Saviors. Acquired in the 1970s from a man named Gabor Nemeth, which gives the center namesake, the provenance of these artworks remains unresolved. The mysterious copies from the schools of Rembrandt, Rubens and others serve here as placeholders for the Midwest’s European heritage. In a land whose immigrant peoples were cutoff from their origins nearly as soon as they arrived, ethnicity quickly became replication. American culture continually turns away from Europe heritage only to imprecisely reproduce it. The paintings are a mishmash, but taken together they also as an allegory for shared obscurity. A reversal of each hung work midway through the run of the exhibition will expose the underside of the gilded and ornate frames. Flipping the paintings performs the exhibit’s central motif of turning away. A turning to what? Towards the open question of what else this first colony and others are to be.
§ The MYSYSYPYN is initiated and written by Matthew Schum, PhD.
“This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota, through a grant from the Region 2 Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.”