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"Bison Heart IV"
Adrian Stimson, "Bison Heart IV," 2007, oil paint and graphite on canvas, 48" x 48". Photo courtesy Todd Mintz.
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"Bison Heart XXIII"
Adrian Stimson, "Bison Heart XXIII," 2007, oil paint and graphite on MDF, 36" x 12". Photo courtesy Todd Mintz.
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"Bison Heart VI"
Adrian Stimson, "Bison Heart VI," 2007, oil paint and graphite on canvas, 48" x 48". Photo courtesy Todd Mintz.
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"Bison Heart VII"
Adrian Stimson, "Bison Heart VII," 2007, oil paint and graphite on canvas, 48" x 48". Photo courtesy Todd Mintz.
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"Post Modern Bison VI"
Adrian Stimson, "Post Modern Bison VI," 2007, bison robe stretched on canvas frame, 24" x 24". Photo courtesy Todd Mintz.
ADRIAN STIMSON, Bison Heart
Nouveau Gallery, Regina
Feb 23 – Mar 17, 2007
By Jack Anderson
With the bison already familiar to us within First Nations’ artistic practices both past and present - notably, for example, in the installation and video work of Vancouver artist Dana Claxton and in the turbulent paintings of Saskatchewan artist Neal McLeod - we are forced to ask not if this symbol can still be deployed, but how it can remain meaningful within the array of artistic discourse that has so frequently referred to it.
In his first solo commercial painting show, Bison Heart, Saskatoon artist Adrian Stimson adopts the bison as a broad cultural symbol of First Nations people, their diverse cultures and their history since colonialism. Significantly though, at the same time we understand the bison here to be more a poetic personal metaphor – one referring to his own identity as an Aboriginal man living in the present.
Stimson exhibits three small bodies of work here - numerous small drawings in which a stenciled form of the bison is repeated and reiterated over and over in various simple configurations; ‘paintings’ absent of any paint at all but which are wholly comprised of buffalo robes stretched over square stretchers; and large, black and white, monochromatic, gestural paintings of bison in a snowy, stormy, empty field. This last series is sourced from photographs and videos he took in 2005, which comprise the centerpiece of the exhibition.
While evidently representational, these images can be understood as Stimson’s bringing forward and re-visioning of a story that is told across the First Nations of an actual event now known as the ‘Trail of Tears’. The outcome of colonial economic agendas, it involved the forced movement of the Cherokee Nation from the eastern United States to designated land in the west. Many attempted to return to their ancestral homes on foot during winter - most dying along the way. And indeed, these small black forms – more smudges in the illusory distance really – can be seen less as bison than as human figures, trudging in the snow.
Melancholic, elegant and eloquent, these grisaille paintings are in one way a memorializing of this historical event – one which caused what Stimson refers to as a whole people’s heartbreak. Speaking as much then to human loss as to cultural fragility, his images - romantic in their misty, painterly atmospherics - are filled with an almost palpable emptiness that expresses and evokes a nostalgia both for a different past and a different present.
Among the most evocative paintings in this show are three that function almost as sequential cinematic frames. In the first, a single bison seems to approach out of the distance. In the third, it occupies the whole visual frame so fully that it becomes an indeterminate gestural abstraction. While we can understand this piece to indicate a dominant culture’s convenient identification of aboriginal peoples as abstractions rather than as active agents within the social sphere, it seems that Stimson is willing these bison forward into visibility, bringing them fully into mind.
Stimson literally embodies the bison in the buffalo robe pieces. Calling up traditions present as well as traditions lost, these works refer to a notion that is widespread among First Nations peoples: that the buffalo have all gone underground. When the buffalo return in all their vitality, so too will Aboriginal people.
Fluxing past with present, traditional with contemporary, and community with self, Stimson creates within the space of his canvases a kind of in-between zone – an almost mystical interstitial reality that transformatively collapses space and time. While his understated work is nonetheless a devastating critique of the colonial project that prompted the absence of a people, it is also a cultural record of the present, of refusing to forget. Here, held in the space of collective memory and his own personal subjectivity, the bison heart of his community beats as his own.