Duane Slick had an opportunity which presented a problem. Approached by legendary Native American painter Jaune Quick-to-See Smith in the run up to the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America, Smith asked Slick to participate in a “counter-Columbus” exhibition of Indigenous artwork she was organizing to challenge the traditionally heroic retelling of the achievement.
Smith–who would go on to become the most significant female Native American painter in history–was looking for work she described as “overtly political.”
To that point, Slick was an oil-based landscape painter. Hardly a genre that screams “overtly political.”
The opportunity, however, was too good to pass up because of this problem.
“The work that I saw that I considered political too often came off as a one liner,” Slick (b. 1961, Waterloo, IA) told Forbes.com. “The experiential quality of paintings wasn’t there for me. I needed to figure out a way to make work that was overtly political.”
The artist would spend years exploring how to do that while remaining true to his beliefs about painting.
He gathered stories about his Meskwaki (Fox of Iowa) and Ho-Chunk (Nebraska) Nations roots from his parents. He continued working with Smith, who lent him a stack of Native poetry books from her personal collection.
Through this all, he learned the storytelling he would eventually bring into his work, which never became “overtly political,” more like, “subtly political.”
The results of Slick’s long exploration of his “problem” are on view at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT during “Duane Slick: The Coyote Makes the Sunset Better.” The presentation marks the artist’s first solo museum exhibition, bringing together over 90 paintings, prints, photographs and video all made within the last five years.
The selected works include Slick’s ongoing series referencing the coyote as a key figure in Indigenous culture.
“The coyote, he was a voice basically,” Slick explains. “Somebody who’s willing to either engage-or not engage-certain types of issues, or perform in a certain type of way that’s expected.”
Slick initially gravitated to the coyote for his artwork because he found it everywhere in the poetry books Smith lent him.
Lately, the visage of the coyote in his work is derived from folk-art coyote masks acquired in Guanajuato, Mexico. The mask is used to define and reinforce architypes in traditional cultures and Slick’s projection of the coyote’s persona through the mask amplifies the role that the animal has played in the mythology and folklore of Indigenous people throughout North America. No other figure is as central to Native American story telling as the coyote, with the animal functioning as both a demi-god and a trickster, simultaneously embodying wisdom and foolishness.
In Slick’s work, the image of the coyote is constantly shape-shifting, reveling in the creature’s infinitely mutable character, one that is often considered a being without a physical body.
Slick’s artist statement further digs into the coyote’s influence upon his practice.
“In narrative traditions, to tell the story of tragedy one must always begin by telling the ending first. I once believed that the weight of such expectations functioned as a cultural given for the artist of Native American descent,” it reads. “Its rules stated that we cry for a vision and place ourselves in a single grand narrative of history and representation…but the laughter of Coyote saturated and filled our daily lives. It echoed through the lecture halls of histories and it was so powerful and it was so distracting that I forgot my place in linear time and now I work from an untraceable present.”
Beyond the Coyote
Slick, who has taught painting at the Rhode Island School of Design for over 25 years, has consistently pursued a vision to integrate secular Modernist abstraction with the beliefs and traditions of his Native American heritage. He does so through a variety of methods.
Both the Meskwaki and Ho-Chunk are woodland tribes, and the artist’s color sensibly reflects the muted tones of their ancestral homelands. Meskwaki translates into “people of the red earth;” Slick’s subdued palette is frequently enlivened by red pictorial elements.
Regular appearances by ghostly silhouettes of grasses and other plants in Slick’s work also speak directly to the Iowa landscape that backgrounded his upbringing.
His use of horizontal stripes was inspired by the mundane–bar codes–and the profound–his father’s death in 2008.
“When those types of things happen, you fixate on certain images,” Slick recalls. “In the days after (his father’s burial) there are certain things that pop out. One of them was the darkness of night, the other was the stripes of the American flag.”
Slick’s father was a Korean War veteran.
“Veteran status within Native culture is very high, so we had to make sure he received the full acknowledgement for his service,” the artist explained of planning his father’s proper burial in the Meskwaki tradition.
Regardless of subject matter, message or inspiration, Slick remains a devout painter, never losing sight of what has continually attracted him to the medium over a thirty-plus year career.
“The materiality and the visual-physical experience you get when you’re looking at an actual painting–all of that is still very important to me,” he said.
“Duane Slick: The Coyote Makes the Sunset Better,” runs January 16 through May 8.