Wendy Red Star, Delegation @Sargent’s Daughters

JTF (just the facts): A total of eight photographic works, variously framed/unframed, and hung/displayed against white walls in the single room downstairs gallery space.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 1 pigment print, 2005, 31×21 inches, in an edition of 20
  • 2 archival pigment prints, 2022, 20×20, 25×17 inches, unique
  • 1 archival ink on paper, board (set of three, each consisting of 10 prints), 2021, sized roughly 67x98x19 inches, unique
  • 5 sets of 4 fabric with photograph (4 sets on view), 2017, each set 19×100 inches overall, unique

(Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work has recently been published by Aperture (here). (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: As the interest in contemporary Indigenous artists and photographers has risen in the past few years, Wendy Red Star is one of the names that has quickly moved to the top of many people’s lists. Red Star is an Apsáalooke (Crow) artist based in Portland, Oregon, and her work has an edge of sharp banter that actively engages with both the stereotypes and realities of Native American life. While the histories and issues she is wrestling with are serious and long standing, Red Star has delivered her ideas with an incisive wit that can be surprisingly blunt, likely catching those off guard who may not be entirely expecting an Indigenous artist to use caricature, humor, and irony with such fearless bite. This small show coincides with the publication of a handsome new Aperture monograph that surveys her work to date, but its single basement room installation really only offers an appetizer-sized introduction to Red Star and her wide-ranging artistic practice.

Two walls of the show are filled with sets of images from the 2017 “Reservation Pop” series, which Red Star originally made in the town of Pryor, Montana, on the Crow reservation, roughly a decade earlier. The photographs document two consistent visuals of reservation life: broken down cars in front yards and one story HUD houses painted in strangely bright colors. Red Star has cropped out the surroundings of the cars and houses and collaged them together with 1970s era satin fabrics, isolating the images and recasting them with a hand-crafted Pop Art aesthetic.

Her visual results are brash and bold, but the re-contextualizations also amplify the deep-rooted poverty and despair that linger in the pictures. The junked cars are no longer sleek or cool – they are variously rusted out and graffitied, with broken windows and long grass growing up over the tires. Some have become lawn decoration and impromptu playgrounds for local kids, while others have been repurposed as handy storage; several are places of storytelling, like tombstones or memorials. And even though they are no longer useful as functioning transportation, these cars have now been absorbed back into the rhythms of daily life in one way or another, with something like acceptance or honor.

Red Star’s house pictures from the series are even more surreal, each home painted in an oddly garish color, like purple, orange, or light blue. One possible explanation for the strangely unnatural color palette is that the government chose the cheapest paint available for these reservation houses, taking whatever was leftover or least popular. The reaction by the locals has been to leave them as is, as a kind of quiet rebellion against the injustice of the color imposition. So while Red Star’s compositions are filled with lively colorful energy, giving each house something like an eccentric individual personality, after a longer look, they sting with undercurrents of silent resistance and persistent hardship. In this way, she’s turned the instantly-recognizable celebrity of Pop Art back on itself, by applying its aesthetics to overlooked symbols of marginalization.

Links to ancestors and elders are a common theme in Indigenous art, and Red Star plays with this connection back through time in a series of three sculptural images titled “Amnía (Echo)”. In each black-and-white portrait, a woman is shown with ten increasingly large duplications of herself layered behind her, like an army of gathering strength. It brings a feminist perspective to the idea of an Indigenous woman and her heritage, her self in the present backed up by repetitions of matrilineal identities going back into the past. As seen here, Red Star’s portraits have rich depth and presence, where one is inherently made up of many. Two other works envision this sense of identities becoming interlinked via the use of multiple exposure and blur, where Red Star has introduced uncertainty and motion into rephotographed formal studio or school yearbook pictures. In these images, the self is shifting and in flux, the deliberate movement in the image-making leaving room to see the connections back to other ghosts and echoes.

The final work in the show is an early self portrait (from 2005), where Red Star has staged herself in the vague approximation of a 19th century salon, with heavy curtains and a floral patterned throw over the chair. Red Star has styled herself in traditional beaded clothing, with bright geometric patterns, fringe, and an elaborate neckpiece, and has taken up a reclining pose on the chair, not unlike those used by wealthy or royal portrait sitters across the ages. But Red Star’s expression bursts the bubble, making it clear that she is bored by this staged artifice, and offering little patience for the whole endeavor. “Indian Woman Sitting” comes off as an uncomfortable farce of cultural repositioning, with Red Star only minimally playing along, and thereby smartly dismissing the framing and aesthetics that were used in the formal photographs of so many 19th and early 20th century Native American leaders.

Unfortunately, this gallery show is simply too small to provide much of a flavor of the contradictions and complexity in Red Star’s work, nor is it entirely a fresh slice of her most recent efforts, which might have provided a succinct addendum to the arc of works in the monograph. As such, it feels more like a placeholder than an intentional artistic statement or expression. But perhaps patience is needed for the momentum of the monograph to build, and something like eighteen months from now, it will be time for a fuller review of where she now finds herself on the artistic road. It’s increasingly clear that Red Star has unique visual stories to tell, and that her vantage point provides an important corrective to the existing historical lines of Native American photography. Hopefully, attention to the monograph will broaden her exposure, opening additional doors that are currently only partially ajar.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. Both the sets of 4 (houses and cars) and the set of 3 nested portraits were already sold, but had been available at $40000 each and $35000 respectively. The two recent photographs are NFS, while the larger portrait is available in an edition from Aperture at $3000. Red Star’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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