Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy all kinds of electronic media, but to experience the essence of non-oral communication, give me paper. Books, drawings, letters, scribbles, notebooks, lists. The actual art works I’ve made have all depended on paper. These are masks with a papier mache base, tufted over with feathers and scraps of torn construction paper. Then little phrases or single words written on white paper are scattered among the feathers and paper tufts. It’s as if a face has forgotten its essential front and given itself over to irregular thoughts. Sometimes I apply an essence of face–eyes, nose, mouth–but then cross with sticks or feathers.
Yesterday I was reminded of my love of art on paper by a visit to the Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis. An intriguing show was just closing–drawings across various antique paper artifacts like maps, stock certificates, checks, invoices. These drawings by Francis Yellow who is Lakota were almost all silhouettes in bright primary colors of Native Americans on horseback. They reminded me of the ledger drawings done in the 19th and early 20th centuries by various plains Indians who were brought to heel by the U.S. cavalry and kept in prison compounds. Given sheets from ledgers, the Native artists drew and painted a way of life that was quickly passing. Then these images were sold. I can’t tell you more than that, except that there was a market for these works, then as now.
Francis Yellow’s work not only calls up this poignant record but literally brings together the Native images with the paper artifacts of the culture that attempted to dominate them. To the eyes of a white person, which I most certainly am, there’s a strange quietude to these images. They have a stark, fixed, arrested quality. One is forced to look beyond the image of rider on horseback in full gallop to the “official” printing in the background. Though the horse-rider gallops across these maps, stock certificates, etc, the printed elements remain fixed in the background. Tension is of the essence. Yet anger, frustration, despair–none of the emotions one might expect from artists kept in captivity is directly expressed. These emotions exist in that infinitesimal space between the printed paper and the image drawn or painted over it.
Todd Bockley also has a number of works on paper by premier Minnesota Ojibway artist George Morrison. Coming to see these, as well as the show, was my main intent. During the 1990s George Morrison and I worked hard on creating what I call an “oral history memoir.” It was published in 1998 as a beautiful book titled Turning the Feather Around: My Life in Art. The Minnesota Historical Society Press outdid themselves: this book is a “work on paper” in the best and more beautiful sense of the term:. From the cover image of one of Morrison’s intensely vivid “horizon paintings” to the many many images from his career, to the design, scale, printing quality throughout, the book is a work of art. And its artfulness depends not only on George Morrison’s compelling story, but on the fact that we hold in our hands a rendition of that history, studded with beautiful images of his work.
For a visual artist, works on paper are often preliminary sketches–I’m thinking of Leonardo da Vinci’s small sketches often of discrete elements of the body, or of his imagined flying machines or of architectural or landscape elements. These are like notebook or diary entries, meant mainly for the artist’s personal use, working from first impression to larger, full-scale production. For other artists, especially those who make art in transit, the sketch or watercolor drawing exists in its own right–a work on paper that captures, both in its portability and its immediacy, an impression, an insight, a mood that could not be replicated in a more “substantial” form–such as oil on canvas.
Morrison’s works on paper are of both types. But there’s a third: the fully formed work which he chose to render on paper with colored pencils or ink or a combination. Morrison was one of the most eclectic artists I know–he worked in metal sculptures, oil paints, wood collages and totems and chiringa forms, and yes, drawings. Not usually watercolor, though. Often the finished drawings refer to surrealist imagery–biomorphic forms that float top to bottom against a horizon. Yes, a horizon such as he viewed every day as a child growing up on the north shore of Lake Superior. A horizon drawn maybe a quarter or a third of the way down from the top is one of his signature elements. It is very strange, very amusing, and ultimately intriguing to watch him combining surrealism which he learned during his early New York career–with the Abstract Expressionist “big boys” as he called them–with the horizon line to which he returned midway through his life. Here’s hoping that there will be an exhibit that helps us appreciate the place of these later works on paper in Morrison’s career.