Tracing History

Chris Pappan and Ryan Singer look at Native American history in remarkably different ways

Chris Pappan grew up in Flagstaff, and the map of Arizona undergirds much of his art.

There's a reason for that. A map, the Indian artist says, is a "record of lands stolen and swindled."

"Water No Get Enemy," one of 15 Pappan works in a two-person show of contemporary Indian art at the UA's Joseph Gross Gallery, is a bright acrylic painted on a map of Arizona. Two mirror-image Indian men are placed back to back; both are drinking the region's precious water from gourds. They're in traditional dress: billowy green shirts that look straight out of the 19th century, white headbands wrapped around their long dark hair.

The thickly painted figures are right on top of the big modern-day map, and the town names and roads of today's Grand Canyon State circle around them. Flagstaff appears just to the east of the man on the right; Douglas is appropriately down south. But there's something screwy about Phoenix: the state capital and its sister cities in sprawl, Mesa and Gilbert, are sideways, chopped off from the rest of Arizona.

The sweeping land beneath the two figures—including that wayward chunk from the Valley of the Sun—once belonged to them. Now only bits and pieces do, in the form of the reservation lands the Navajos and Apaches and Pimas and Hopis and Tohono O'odham now occupy.

But Pappan—whose heritage is a mix of Osage, Kaw, Cheyenne River Sioux and European—asserts through his work that the Indians are still here. They haven't vanished, as Americans used to believe they would. His apt map metaphor, working its way through layers of history, merges past and present and asserts that Indian identity is still tied to the land.

Language of the Land: Popular Culture Within Indigenous Nations and the New Wave of Artistic Perspectives takes a fresh look at contemporary Indian art. The show's two artists, Pappan and Ryan Singer, a Navajo now living in Albuquerque, both declare themselves weary of clichéd images of noble warriors and musical Kokopellis. But they use different means to assert contemporary Indian identity.

While Pappan experiments with a variety of innovative materials, Singer is a pure painter. His straightforward portraits of Indian life zing with pop-art colors and a cartoon sensibility. In fact, a few of his paintings are pure, punked-out cartoons, inspired by his childhood love of sci-fi.

And though he declares that the landscape and beauty of the rez are "trapped into my childhood psyche," he's not entirely reverential. His acrylic painting "The False Community" is a crayon-bright depiction of a rural bar. Three Navajo men in cowboy hats are walking in the door. Taking on demon alcohol, Singer has painted a banner on the bar's sun-splashed wall that reads "The Hell in Here."

Singer's "Shi Masani with Skoal" also travels some of the past-present terrain that Pappan's work does. It's an affectionate portrait of an old Navajo woman. Clearly a woman of today, she has a concrete slab house; a can of mass-produced Skoal chewing tobacco presides on her kitchen table.

But she's still in tune with the old ways. She's decked out in traditional turquoise jewelry and her blue metal coffee pot wouldn't have been out of place in a 19th-century campfire. Best of all, through her cheap metal sliding-glass window, she can stake a claim on the blue, blue sky that wraps itself around Diné, the Navajo land.

Likewise, Singer's "Affinity to Land," honors Diné's big sky and roller-coaster hills. Here, though, just for fun, Singer reverses their colors. His sky is a patch of yellow-green, brushily painted, and his earth is sky blue. The painting veers dangerously toward sentimentality with the insertion of a Navajo man's head at one side. He's there to gaze out onto into the distance, to show whose land this is.

Pappan has put some distance between himself and that Southwest landscape. He's now living in Chicago, absorbing the experimentations of contemporary art. Early on, though, he trained at the famed Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where the late Fritz Scholder once taught. Though Scholder arrived in the 1960s, before Pappan was born, one can still feel Scholder's influence in Pappan's stark, in-your-face figures.

Unlike Scholder, though, Pappan gives his figures an overlay of history. Even an ironic painting of a sexed-up young Indian woman—her buckskins skimped into a mini-skirt and tube top—lies atop a collection of old-time tourist souvenirs from "Indian country."

Pappan's forthright figures also recall the long tradition of whites-photographing-Indians, of Native Americans posing silently, even stiffly, in all their finery for photogs like Edward S. Curtis. The ancient woman in "Mohave Madonna," another of the map paintings, does exactly that. Dressed in a long, olden-days dress, she stands gazing at us, as though she's facing a Curtis, and not so incidentally staring the rest of us down.

Her Arizona bleeds through her body and her clothes. The land's place names surface through the paint, alighting near her heart and her genitals, turning her into an Earth Mother. But she's not entirely of the past. Purple stripes radiate from her in great diagonals, mimicking today's Arizona flag.

Traditional Indian motifs also find their way into Pappan's work. In "Desert Gathering," another acrylic on a map, another old woman stares out at the viewer, with the place names of the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest floating around her head. But she's also surrounded by imagery first sketched out by her ancestors. Their circular, notched basket designs encircle her like a halo.

In another series, Pappan draws in pencil on "ledger paper." He tells us that Indian artists started using these printed paper documents in the 19th century. They were evidently plentiful in the Old West, at a time when U.S. Indian agents and entrepreneurs were pouring into Indian territory. Indians began to draw on the paper brought by the whites, sketching out the abstracted designs they had formerly etched onto rocks and drawn onto hides.

The old papers Pappan has chosen trace a kind of history. One is a form for listing the names of Army officers. Another is a "freight received" document from the Wabash Railroad Co., a reminder that the railroads that barreled into the West did much to push the Indians off their lands.

Pappan fills in the blanks on these papers with wonderfully evocative drawings. The railroad document, for example, is overlaid with a drawing ("Into Town") that conjures the most common form of transport on today's rez: a pickup truck. The truck zips along beneath a sign advertising the "Pow Wow Trading Post, Rocks Wholesale."

Delicious irony drenches "In a Wigwam of Primitive Construction." This ledger work is drawn on a blow-up of some fancy 19th-century handwriting; the text details the price of goods delivered by a firm in New York.

Pappan has drawn a contemporary commodity well. This late-20th-century Indian dwelling is not a wigwam but a travel trailer, shiny, dented and stained from years of defiant occupation out on the windswept Indian lands.