NEW EYES ON PEABODY ESSEX
Kent Monkman is a readable artist, which sometimes means that he is easily misread. His films, installations, performances, and paintings invite interpretation as satirical reimaginings of North American art history by a Canadian artist of Cree descent. That Monkman also has a transgender alter ego he calls Miss Chief Eagle Testickle who figures in much of his work only increases the likelihood of the occasional glib interpretation. His work is indeed often satirical but it is always much more than that.
Born in St. Marys, Ontario, in 1965, Monkman grew into an artist who is keenly aware of the way that nineteenth-century art painted First Nations people out of history, but one who nonetheless has a fine appreciation of the technical skills of a Bierstadt or a Catlin. Where many artists of his background might have looked to abstraction for a new pictorial language to escape the sorry business of Canada's native populations, Monkman has chosen instead to appropriate and misappropriate the conventions of history painting to get under the skin of those narratives, to make a scene, as Miss Chief does in The Triumph of Mischief where she rules a tableau of cultural mayhem while a lesser figure like Picasso looks on, nonplussed and ignored. But if you see that painting and miss its homage to the painterly majesty of, for instance, the Hudson River school, you have missed half of what makes Monkman so good-and so much fun.
Miss Chief is not to be misread as a drag queen and her films, tableaus, and performances are not camp, having no whiff of the insincerity that camp often implies. She is instead Monkman's version of the berdache, a two-spirit figure common to many Native American tribes who occupies both genders, and in that sense can look both ways at once...just as Monkman does in revering the painting of a Tiepolo or a David but calling it into question at the same time. The unmistakable depth of art historical reference in his satire as well as its lightheartedness has made Monkman quite popular in Canada. He is also well represented in Europe and in the United States, where he is featured in the exhibition Sovereign: Independent Voices at the Denver Art Museum until August 17.
In many ways Peabody Essex is the ideal venue for Monkman's work; his giant tipi of crystal beads containing films created by Miss Chief at the museum's 2012 Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art set the tone for the surprises that exhibition held in store for anyone with preconceived notions about Native American art. In going through PEM's collections with us what drew Monkman's attention was not what you might expect. He wanted to talk about the richness of the museum's many maritime paintings, especially the four by Michel Felice Cornè depicting the 1812 battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerrière.
PEM is uneasy about being too narrowly identified as a maritime museum given the immense range of other holdings and its ambitions for the future, but Monkman sees the maritime works as the metaphorical portal to the collection. "Everything in the collection came off of these ships," he says, "the people, the goods, all of it. And I like the symbolism of the sea, the mystery of what is on the other side of the ocean." He then adds another note to his appreciation by observing that "they also interest me because of their technical difficulty." The depiction of water is something that has interested Monkman since childhood and he is, he says, about to make a huge (ten by twenty foot) maritime painting of his own for the first time. Museums often invite him to go through their collections so he was especially impressed that when PEM invited him to do so they were interested in his point of view. "Curators and artists do need to talk to each other," he says. "It's great that they are asking us to come in and saying, ‘What do you think. What is your impression of what we are doing?'" These are fruitful questions because this is an artist who has thought about how the museum might remystify the sea by presenting its maritime paintings in a different context, in different formats, with different companion pieces. Given the spirit of this place, that just might happen.