New Skins: Arts Magazine

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Background Check
Jim Denomie and Andrea Carlson use the cultural images of their ancestors to create contemporary art.

By Tammy Sopinski Perlman
ROOTED IN THE narratives of their shared Anishinaabe heritage, painters Jim Denomie and Andrea Carlson use native myths to explore aesthetics and philosophy in their new Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program (MAEP) exhibition on view in the Minnesota Artists Gallery from April 6 through May 27. Denomie’s works, which analyze history, representation, and the act of painting, are both humorous and politically charged. Carlson’s paintings examine authenticity and culture.

His most recent body of work is the result of a commitment to create at least one painting everyday for one year, Denomie explained. His journey resulted in a loose, expressive approach to the canvas.

The “Painting-a-Day” offered several revelations. Getting home late one night, about halfway through the year, Denomie was feeling too tired to paint. “After contemplation, I said [to myself], ‘Go in [to the studio], use whatever paint is on the palette and do a quick painting,” he recalled. “’Paint a blue circle with a yellow line through it and go to bed.’” Reflecting on the surprising result, he said, “I wowed myself. I loved [the painting] so much I was no longer tired. I whipped out two more that night. The next morning, I realized that if I hadn’t gone in [to the studio], that particular painting would not exist. If I had waited until the morning, I would have approached the canvas with a different frame of mind. Creativity is like a flowing river. What happens then will only happen then and something different will happen later.”

The outcome of that year is about 430 small-scale paintings, about 300 of which are portraits he calls “Rugged Indians.” Quick brushstrokes compose each unique, imaginary character. In the gallery, they interact with one another, as well as with the landscapes, animal paintings, and symbols that make up the rest of the series. Together they form a powerful community.

Ripe with socio-political commentary and sprinkled with a healthy does of humor, Denomie’s “Renegade” series tells epic tales about both historical and contemporary Anishinaabe. “Some have a more pugnacious dialogue [than the ‘Rugged Indians’],” Denomie said with a grin.

In this new series, the surreal is supplanted by realistic imagery, although the situations depicted are sometimes absurd. One work features a Fort Snelling as a White Castle restaurant being attacked by Indians on horseback.

In her paintings, Andrea Carlson addresses her Anishinaabe and Scandinavian ancestry, exploring ideas of culture, authenticity, and interpretation. In the “Windigo” series, she opens views into mountainous landscapes, often framed by black-and-white geometrically patterned blankets—theatrical curtains on the scene. These vistas are filled with characters from Anishinaabe stories, intermingled with examples of rosemaling and images of teapots that address her Scandinavian heritage.

“It’s mixed,” Carlson said of her work. “I’m mixed. When [I was] doing just the stories and the stylization, everyone was trying to pin a culture on it. I want to break away from that and bring everything right into the open.”

These paintings place objects within an often incongruous historical context. The rich narrative history of her Anishinaabe heritage provides the humor, animals, and innuendo Carlson uses to tell her own story in witty, hybrid ways. In Under the Blanket she offers a blue-willow-decorated teapot on a black-and-white blanket. The “Windigo” series is named after an Anishinaabe winter cannibal monster that often misidentifies those it consumes. He is an apt metaphor for cultural collision. In preparation for her show in the MAEP galleries, Carlson looked beyond her own background and began exploring the multicultural make-up of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts itself. The “Windigo” series grew to include the museum’s story. Ten objects from the Institute’s permanent collection are now represented in Carlson’s world, intermingled with her established iconography.

With a keen eye for detail and pattern, Carlson has a meticulous approach to painting. She easily adopts each style she undertakes, be it Anishinaabe iconography; the rich, light-filled textures of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting, The Carpet Merchants (1887); or the detailed carvings of the Jade Mountain (1784) in the MIA’s Chinese galleries.

“These objects of different backgrounds and identities have started representing Minneapolis even though they are from all over and have different identities,” Carlson said. “However they got here, they’re here. And we’ve adopted them. I’m trying to make them my own, [to] take them out of the museum even while they are still in it.”

Tammy Sopinski Perlman is MAEP Associate at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Citation: Tammy Sopinski Perlman, "Background Check: Jim Denomie and Andrea Carlson use the cultural images of their ancestors to create contemporary art," Arts 30, No. 2 (March/April 2007): 16-17.