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Riel Benn, "The End," acrylic, 2006, 30” x 40”. Photo Courtesy: Red Spirit.
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Riel Benn, "Mr. Right," acrylic.Photo Courtesy: Red Spirit.
RIEL BENN, Alter Ego
Red Shift Gallery, Saskatoon
May 11 - June 22, 2007
By Marlene Milne
Entering the Red Shift Gallery and experiencing the paintings of Riel Benn made me think about the concept of "persona": how an alter ego gives the freedom to manipulate, to comment and observe, and to wryly make political statements.
The most widely reproduced image in this exhibition, curated by Cathy Mattes, is The End a 1940s-like version of a movie poster, complete with credits introducing the cast of this "show". It acts as a kind of viewer's guide to the installation as a whole. Benn gets first billing playing his alter ego, the Joker or "Trickster" figure, the centre of the action. With his back to the audience, he manages to simultaneously evoke Mary Poppins and Dorothy, reminding the audience of the fantasy and irony of the scenario being played out in the foreground.
However, the canvas that first catches the eye, on the left, next to the show's title is Mr. Right, with the Joker in full regalia, perched on a tombstone. Texts frequently complement Benn's images, but here, the cow jumping over the moon (like the flying pig in The End subverts the inscription, suggesting peace and true love are both highly impossible. In his book The Trickster Shift, Allan J. Ryan writes of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun's "Redman" figure clicking his heels in Dance Me on Sovereignty, Dance Me Outside Anywhere I Want. Of the figure's "continuing status as an involuntary ward of the federal government," Ryan writes that: "Needless to say, this is no dancing matter." Needless to say, as well, that the relationships suggested in Benn's paintings are uneasy ones.
The End is present, not only in this portrait but also in every work - the Blue Bird, who plays "himself". Perched on the Trickster's hat, shoulder, the shoulder of the dead "warrior", and the top of the game wheel, for example, the Blue Bird is the observer, the silent witness, seeing the big picture unfold in the world where "anything can happen".
Across the room, an arrow to a knife thrower's wheel pinions a manacled priest. In the distance, an isolated thunderstorm zaps a residential school, and between these two violent actions, the Trickster strolls casually with two children toward the delights of a fair. But, what does the Blue Bird see? Sometimes, in the battle for restitution, civil and legal rights, Aboriginal people win some ground, but more often the progress is as fruitless as the tomahawk missing its target. Is the walk so innocent? The clown in this painting is half red, half white, perhaps a representation of the Métis, whose cause may not be taken as seriously as some. On closer examination, the fair doesn't appear to be an oasis of delight. It is deserted, and its tipi could simply be another exhibit to be exploited as a curiosity.
Riel Benn is very young, and he has purpose and vision. It remains to be seen how he carries this forward, but I have be watching him for some years, and this show, so well curated and intuitively sequenced, makes not only a coherent statement but also a case for Benn's continued direction. This Sioux artist from the Birdtail First Nation in Manitoba, though following in the steps of Rosalie Favell, Yuxweluptun, Jim Logan, Gerald McMaster, and George Littlechild, makes some different artistic choices (certainly in this show) using a consistent iconography, and smoothly applied acrylics in a distinct graphic style. His trenchant, subversive sub-text, however, puts him firmly in their company.