Visual Art 9-30-2015

The Past Is Prologue

There's a gently subversive play with medium and history in Karen Savage Blue's paintings — oscillating between light and dark, carefully-rendered and nearly-abstract — that springs naturally from whatever falls before her eye on a given day in the ever-shifting environs of the Northland.

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There is a perception that Native American culture has vanished, discarded into the country’s sad mythic past. The Arrowhead region is fortunate to have evidence of much to correct this misapprehension, from the nearby gatherings at Fond du Lac and Grand Portage and recurring local Anishinaabe frybread taco sales to finding Ojibwe wild rice at the farmer’s market or seeing the Tweed Museum’s expansion of its Native galleries. You need only look to the growth of the university’s American Indian Studies Department or visit Duluth’s downtown casino. You can feel it in the simple offer of hand warmers from new friends at a cold bus stop.

Karen Savage Blue, Dakota Fruit, oil on canvas, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

As an artist and educator, Karen Savage Blue, whose heritage is Ojibwe and German, is part of this regional fluorescence. Through September, the Duluth Art Institute, in its gallery dedicated to George Morrison, has been exhibiting her work in Karen Savage Blue, Spirit. The venue seems fitting in that Savage Blue shares with Morrison a love of tactility and a consciousness of nature as alive. Both lack the need to prompt a viewer with pedantic matters — Savage Blue’s work, rather, expresses her joy in finding a way to depict pine needles, a particular leaf, or how headlights shone into a night scene impact a painting’s outcome.

The exhibition features numerous works completed during her project to create a painting every day for a year. And while it highlights a reservoir of lessons learned from her 365-day experience — better understanding of the proximity of objects to each other, the right swipe of a palette knife to convey an early-morning sky, when detail isn’t necessary and abstraction preferable — it also features work from throughout her career. Though it wasn’t included in the show, I was fortunate to see one of Savage Blue’s first paintings. This piece has a spare tree with a bear and its prominent shadow ambling round its left flank. Her instructor at the time had told her not to add anything figurative, but the bear elevates an otherwise plain image into allegory, indifferently turning its rump to the viewer, better to focus on less idealized matters, like berry hunting or finding slumber. The image to me declaims that, like this animal’s, Savage Blue’s path would be her own.

Paintings of Lake Superior by Karen Savage Blue, courtesy of the artist.

Savage Blue’s images are often small — not diminutively so, but they don’t require scale to overwhelm a viewer their virtuosity. She depicts the things right at our feet, just out the window, and farther afield. Surfaces are at times glassy and serene, rough-hewn and hatched-into at others. Her palettes range from dusky tones punctuated with high-key flecks to the luminous, and nearly fauve. Her subjects vary from the minutely observed, as in Dakota Fruit, to expansive views of Lake Superior.  Even her name underscores this range, conveying the heavily-freighted admiration/derogation in tropes of noble savagery tempered by “Blue,” together suggestive of balancing alternations between the wild and the somber. 

The oscillations in Savage Blue’s work between light and dark, between carefully-rendered and nearly-abstract, spring naturally from whatever falls before her eye on a given day, depending on the constantly changing physical environment of the Northland. They are displayed in clusters that foreground dramatic seasonal variance and have the eccentric charm of panels in a high school yearbook, so varied are her modes of presentation. The works are also impressed with moods that accompany the unpredictable demands of motherhood, grandmotherhood, and a career. Her siblings are artists as well. They shared an upbringing that included an atypically secure home, yet one headed by a troubled father, which made each of them independent and responsive to shifting contingencies.

Courtesy of Karen Savage Blue

Despite the vast difficulties facing Native communities today, numerous Native American artists have gained prominence. Maturing academic departments devoted to indigenous studies, museums’ astute collecting of the non-canonical, and the evident crises facing the planet assert the value of the messages of Savage Blue’s contemporaries. The most notable among these artists provide challenging paths that subvert pat assumptions and reductive stereotypes. Minnesota painter Jim Denomie employs appropriation and abundant humor. It says much that a work like his Buffalo Wings, with its Indians on horseback chasing enormous flying chickens, could hang in a bank — as it did for Duluth’s recent Biennial. Oregon photographer Wendy Red Star‘s deployment of kitsch — princess cliches, tribal garb, stuffed animals, hyper-vivid backdrops — forcefully makes one question the constructed nature of myth.

Karen Savage Blue’s work is more gently subversive, utilizing a tradition, oil painting, that some deem “Western.” Her work is distinctive, less for any evident didactic intent than for the ways she expressively wields the medium. Hers is a soft-spoken pedagogy. Though Ojibwe on one side of her ancestry, currents of romanticism co-exist with a profound attachment to the earth as it is, and what remains of it. Where many artists might stress the havoc being wreaked upon nature, Savage Blue takes a different tack, aware that such admonishment yields little more than resistance. Her work urges, instead, that we see ourselves as inseparable from nature, in her words, that we are “genetically linked.” Thus a recurrent theme in many of her recent paintings is a hybridizing of human and plant forms — images I’ve found challenging until gaining this context. When we talked, she noted that more can be done by encouraging people to act positively, as opposed to chastising them for what they are doing wrong. Her ambition, as articulated on the website of the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College where she teaches, is “to stir a desire towards a living partnership with earth.”

Eastman Johnson, Camp Scene at Grand Portage. Permanent collection of St. Louis County Historical Society, used with permission.

Adjacent to the Duluth Art Institute, the St. Louis County Historical Society recently added a gallery of works by Eastman Johnson, an East Coast painter drawn to the frontier and its disappearing cultures in the 1850s. I walked through this display with Savage Blue and admired the tiny details she gleaned from his sketches: that he was wearing moccasins, or that his cabin was latticed with birch bark. She noted how similar Eastman’s tiny panorama of Grand Portage looked to the site even now, just as it had at an August pow wow she attended, though the tepees were now gone. The pull of the past and push of the present exists in her own work; when taking students to Lake Superior, she urges them look beyond the ore boats, to try seeing the lake without them. Her paintings reference a time before taconite; they are proto-anthropocenic, compelling us to see past our prideful interventions upon the lake, to view “managing” its waters as an epic mythologizing of our capacities.

Courtesy of the artist

In her introduction to the Eastman Johnson exhibition, Dr. Linda LeGarde Grover, a scholar at the University of Minnesota Duluth, notes that push/pull of history in his portraits, too, writing: “When we see these familiar faces at a powwow or at school, or in a grocery store, we realize that our grandparents made possible the survival of the Anishinaabe people. We are still here.”

Karen Savage Blue’s images, like Johnson’s, make clear that, despite a tragic and exploitative history, the land and the abundant beauty it offers remain here, too, and that we are called to maintain it as far more than an act of mere self-preservation.

Related exhibition information:

Karen Savage Blue’s exhibition, Spirit, is on view at the Duluth Art Institute until October 4, 2015.

Tim White is an artist, writer, and founder of the “You are not a dinosaur” artists collective. He currently lives in Duluth, Minnesota.