Kent Monkman: The Urban Res
May 4 – June 14, 2014
By SHANA BETH MASON, May 2014
There is an inherent danger in resurrecting or re-appropriating movements of visual art long-since considered a part of the common aesthetic vocabulary. Mannerism, High Renaissance, Impressionism, Pop; these moments in the art historical canon are so entrenched into the modern consciousness, that their reappearance in newer forms of art often signal the contemporary artist's lacking of or complete disillusionment with spontaneous creativity. This situation does not apply to multidisciplinary artist Kent Monkman. He was brought up in Winnipeg, Canada, an urban center with the trappings of subsurface racial, cultural, and socio-economic tensions. This environment is markedly opposite to romantic notions of the Canadian frontier: assuming grandiose bison hunts, undisturbed reservations and extreme climates all contribute to such a blaring stereotype. Monkman capitalizes on the failures of these ideas, resulting in satire and fractured narratives that are just as extravagant.
The exhibition is entitled The Urban Res; 'Res' being a shortened version of 'Reservation' is also Latin for 'Timeline' or 'Narrative' (most often used in the phrase In Media Res, or 'In The Middle of the Scene'). Both definitions play on and against each other in various ways. The 'Reservation' terminology is inaccurate when applied to Monkman's storefronts, parking lots, alleyways and front porches, but is a purposeful reminder of these structures' foundations. Any association with the Disney's 'Frontierland' quickly evaporates with the blaring legacies of First American
relocation, displacement and disenfranchisement firmly within Monkman's finely-tuned, cinematic sets. The Latin utterance is well-placed for Monkman's paintings (not as much for his sculptural vignette, called Bête Noire), that are calculated disruptions into depictions of robberies, assaults and loitering. A colorful cast of characters reside in Italian Renaissance, Cubist, Abstract Expressionist, Hudson School and Neo-Classical bodies. The flesh of a herd of bison, pursued down an empty suburban street by Monkman's alter-ego/protagonist "Mischief Testicle", alternates between anatomic exactness and Picasso's distorted color planes.
Bête Noire is, straddling sensations between The Smithsonian and a well-tailored mannequin in a Hamburg sex shop, the definitive apex of the exhibition. His androgynous chief crosses a variety of borders between pulp fiction, institutional authoritarianism, performance and murdered Modernism. A Picasso-esque bison lays flat and bleeding before the chief's handsome steed (a bedazzled Harley Davidson that compliments the "finish fetish" of the taxidermist's coyote). Such radical shifts in the meta-historic timeline are, for the unprepared viewer, disorienting; it's tempting to think that Monkman suffers from a kind of art historical ADHD. Quite the contrary. Monkman has an iron grip of his references, dealing them out in double-time on his canvases and open gallery space. The mammoth scale of his paintings behave like murals inside a cathedral, telling definite stories, but without certain lessons or resolutions. He cherry-picks the most vibrant, most anonymous figures from the history books and puts them onto stages of which they have little to no direct relation. In sum, he breaks the proverbial ground beneath him, revealing the strangest images within the fissures.
Shana Beth Mason is a critic formerly based in Brooklyn now active in London, UK. Contributions include Art in America, ArtVoices Magazine, FlashArt International, InstallationMag (Los Angeles), Kunstforum.as (Oslo), The Brooklyn Rail, The Miami Rail, San Francisco Arts Quarterly (SFAQ), and thisistomorrow.info (London).
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