“Marking Time,” the current Ucross Foundation Art Gallery show featuring 2019 Ucross Native American Fellows Heidi Brandow and Luzene Hill, has led me to think anew about the artist in community, about the capacity art has for commenting on history and contemporary social realities and about the link between aesthetics and ethics.
As a child I learned in some invisible way that art was separate from our daily lives and practical concerns. Art transcended time, place, language, history. It even transcended individual biography. At the same time, I was told that art was the mark of individual genius. How could it both transcend the individual and mark individual genius?
What I was taught obliterates the deep connections between personal experience, family, society and culture. It ignores the links between the individual and the community, between the singular and the collective. It ignores geography. It ignores class, race, ethnicity, religion, age, gender — those realities that sometimes help us to know one another better and at other times hinder us from knowing one another at all.
The factors that I was told lie outside the realm of art play a central role in Heidi Brandow’s and Luzene Hill’s work. Both artists come from native backgrounds — Brandow is Diné and Kānaka Maoli; Hill is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Each makes art driven by broad social concerns.
Brandow notes that she is a painter, printmaker and social practice artist whose work centers on the “…inclusion of Indigenous people, and perspectives in the development of ethical and sustainable methods of creative engagement.”
Hill’s emphasis is on socially engaged conceptual art shaped by an interdisciplinary view of pre-contact cultures of the Americas and of women’s studies. Through her art she advocates for indigenous sovereignty.
Each artist recognizes art’s power in the social realm. Each makes art that is an argument for something, reflecting concern for landscapes and the health of the Earth, for traditional lifeways, and for the situation of Native peoples, especially women.
But the argument isn’t everything. And while they share a great deal, Hill and Brandow work out their concerns in very different ways.
While at Ucross, Heidi Brandow began taking regular walks. The foundation is surrounded by hay fields with hills rising above Clear Creek to the north and south, and the Bighorn Mountains visible to the west. Walking, Brandow felt herself stripped down by the land, more in touch with the foundations of her art. She left behind what she saw as the “overcomplicated.”
Each of Brandow’s paintings at Ucross is in the form of a vertical box, commonly 10 to 12 inches wide by 24 inches tall. Each is painted on a 2-inch deep frame so that the paintings reach out toward the viewer. In many of these works, the vertical space is broken into four areas stacked atop one another. In the top frame we see an image that may be a simplified abstract human skull, or perhaps a helmet, or the head of an alien visitor to earth. The image is cartoonlike — opaque and smooth with gaping empty eye sockets, a being unmarked by experience, or maybe it’s dead. Below the head is a space filled with bones — maybe the body — but the bones are usually of one kind — all femurs say — and they are not connected to each other. Just a group of bones below which is an area of looping continuous lines. These might make up an indecipherable calligraphy — the unknown language of the alien helmet head, or the language of our own ancestors now lost to history. But maybe it’s not language at all— maybe it’s grasses blowing in the wind, the world shaking before us. Finally, the lowest panel is made up of human hands — realistically drawn — reaching toward one another but never touching.
The finished paintings are heavily coated with resin so that we look through a deep glossy surface, as if through a polished window into another world. The images are sealed from their environment, the four parts isolated from each other by distinct boundaries of color and line. The bones will never be joined, the heads will never find their bodies, nor the hands their arms. The languages will never be spoken. Or grasses be unbent. We are returned to the scenes of Native peoples pushed off their lands, their lives stolen. We bear witness.
But there is whimsy, too — the pleasure in making marks in space, the simple forms and bright colors, the schematic cartoonlike quality of the heads that are so unlike the anatomically careful rendering of the hands, all that glossy resin coating everything.
Luzene Hill’s work shares Brandow’s concern for landscape, for the human relationship to landscape, and for the collisions of history. But Hill’s approach is more direct. In a series of mostly black and white images on paper, Hill depicts disembodied crossed and uncrossed legs drawn with charcoal and ink and often scarred but not obliterated by tea stains reminiscent of blood or storm driven clouds. Some of the finished pieces have been made by drawing on two or more sheets of paper that are then cut out and layered, suggesting separation in the manner of Brandow’s vertically stacked images.
Hill has said that this series had its source in an experience in college when a male professor began class by asking the women in the front row to cross their legs after which the professor would say, “Now that the gates of hell are closed class can begin.”
The second part of Hill’s work is sculptural — a rectangular pedestal rises from a circular platform that may be a low stage. Atop the pedestal is a beeswax figure of a woman on her back with legs pointing up and spread apart. She has no arms — a visual representation of Hill’s experience of being raped and feeling that she could not make her arms work, that she could not reach out to fight back against her attacker.
A cochineal dyed strip of red silk extends from the woman’s body across the pedestal, down the vertical surface to the circular platform around which Hill has placed 574 strips of the same cochineal dyed red silk, each piece of silk representing one of the federally recognized Native American tribes.
The carmine red silk draws us again toward blood, to an awareness of the countless missing and murdered indigenous women. We see the joining of the political — a cry for justice for those missing and murdered women — and the personal — Hill’s experience of being raped, her feeling that she was unable to fight back.
While there’s no whimsy in Hill’s work, there is a sardonic view that helps us rise above what might otherwise destroy us. The red dye in all those silk strips was traditionally made by Mixtec, Mayan, and Aztec peoples who dried and crushed female cochineal insects to release the carminic acid in their bodies. The acid isn’t present in the male insects and while its purpose is to deter predatory ants, the larvae of two other insects feed on the female cochineal in order to appropriate the carminic acid in their own defense against ants. The Mayans were made to deliver cochineal insects as tribute to the Aztecs. Later the British army used cochineal to dye army uniforms — but only those worn by officers. In our own day, while the Starbucks corporation has phased out the use of cochineal dye in its strawberry and crème frappuccino, the dye made from the bodies of the female insects continues to be used in a wide array of foods and cosmetics. Hill’s use of cochineal reflects both an absurdist view of the past and a serious call for an end to the longstanding cruelties carried out against the Earth and against Native women who are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than that of non-native women.
Luzene Hill and Heidi Brandow have produced work that reveals shared social and ethical concerns articulated through strikingly different materials, metaphors, and sensibilities. There is a richness in this suggestion that there are many ways to move forward.
Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.