At the Aldrich Museum, the coyote takes the lead
As a boy growing up in the Midwest, artist Duane Slick recalls, spending weekends with his parents and six siblings at parties with fellow countrymen Meskwaki and Ho-Chunk was an important part of his life. But the visits also meant that show-and-tell became strenuous activity once he returned to school.
When the family piled into their station wagon for the ride back to their white stucco home in Cedar Falls, Iowa, her mother would turn around and say, “When you come to school on Monday and they ask you to do show-and-tell, just tell them you went to visit your grandparents.
“The white man does not understand the Indian,” she said. “And if you tell them anything about what you did and what you saw, the first thing they’re going to do is try to take it all away.”
During his teenage years, however, he found a loophole in his “parent law”. With the smile of someone who has stumbled upon a secret, he describes having one of those waiting moments: “They may have said I can’t talk, but they never said that I can’t paint or draw.”
Slick’s works are now on display at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where the artist has spoken about his life and work. Entitled “The Coyote Makes the Sunset Better”, it is his first solo exhibition in a museum and presents 90 works of art: abstract paintings, texts, prints, photographs, found objects and video.
Its production has not always been so varied. Artist and curator Jaune Quick-to-See Smith recalls, “When I first met Duane, he was a fabulous oil landscape painter.
But that changed about three decades ago. “I kind of think it all started in 1990,” Slick said of the new direction his work took. At that time, preparations were underway for the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America. Smith invited Slick to contribute work to a show she was hosting “from an Indigenous perspective”. But she wanted explicitly political work.
“I was hoping to open doors and windows, let some fresh air in, on the mistakes that this country was promoting,” she said.
At first, Slick found Smith’s request for political work difficult. But then, while at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center in Massachusetts, he came across some local news: coyotes, natives of the American West, had made it to the tip of Cape Cod. The news seemed fortuitous. He had already thought of the Coyote, a recurring figure in many Native American myths, when reading traditional tales in books like “Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping With His Daughter” by Barry Lopez.
“I decided I couldn’t do the overtly political jobs,” Slick said, “But if I trusted Coyote, he could do it for me.”
He ultimately delivered a “highly political and commendable” work, Smith said in an email, “a bestselling multimedia painting that recited the names of his ancestors and noted turn-of-the-century Native Americans.”
Slick’s abstract landscapes quickly give way to a large-scale practice, which often incorporates the coyote. He began performing what he calls “sand stories”, dripping sand from his clenched fist onto black cloth while telling stories that featured the animal as the central character. He even gave a talk to the College Art Association that took the form of a five-minute scripted conversation with a coyote. As Slick told stories, the coyote harassed him: “Duane, stay on topic. Why are you here?”
Three decades later, Slick’s canine friend appears throughout his Aldrich show – and not just as two coyote decoys placed in the museum. The coyote’s wolf-shaped mug appears repeatedly, in prints and paintings that begin to echo Warhol’s famous celebrity multiples. With the animal’s head tilted at different angles in layered hues, the series’ brighter pieces evoke the flashy, alternating neon animations one might find on a nightclub sign. The show also includes video based on 3D scans of a coyote mask that Slick purchased in Mexico; a series of text paintings; and a photograph from his personal collection of books (with titles like “Custer is dead for your sins”).
Between these portraits are more abstract horizontal striped canvases that Slick produced during lockdown. In making these paintings, he says, he had the American flag in mind. (His father, a Korean War veteran, had died in 2008, followed by several other family members.) He says he also thought about the dark of night, the colors of feather fans and the rows of storage shelves he saw. while working on a project at Brown University’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, which was founded around a collection of 60,000 Native American artifacts.
The paintings are terrific. Seeing them provides a thrill that I imagine is similar to discovering a five-letter word that is both the password to a dormant bitcoin wallet and the answer to today’s Wordle: works have the ingenuity of a singular answer to several enigmas at the same time. On the one hand, they suggest the textures of modern life, whether in the perfect curves of prefabricated furniture or the glitchy screens and grilles of early video games. But they also seem to be experiencing the experience of grieving in the midst of nature: the experience, perhaps, of stopping to gaze at a night sky and letting a new, unfamiliar solitude set in.
In addition to all this, they engage with various traditions of the making of geometric patterns was perfected long before European and American modernists became famous for the practice. But they also succeed when read through the prism of minimalism and hard-edge painting, the legacies of which are part of many high-level East Coast painting MFA programs today.
Slick himself taught at the Rhode Island School of Design for nearly 27 years, in the painting and printmaking departments. (These two worlds seemingly come together in his Coyote canvases, whose painted, layered hues echo the layered approaches of printmaking.) the RISD committee that hired Slick, said. But the artist “takes the theme and he disturbs it, and he revives it and problematizes it”.
Of Slick’s current exhibit, Congdon said, “Every painting in there is so good.”
With such good work, it may be hard to believe that Slick only received his first solo museum exhibition at the age of 60. But as Smith explained, “it happens a lot in our Indigenous communities.” She noted that if one were to survey art museums across the United States, each might “have half a dozen contemporary Native artists or none”.
Slick has had solo exhibitions at other nonprofit institutions, such as the UNI Gallery of Art at the University of Northern Iowa, his undergraduate alma mater. Gallery director Darrell Taylor has long been struck by Slick’s work. He said that when the gallery opened a year of alumni exhibitions in 2010, Slick was “one of the first people I thought of.”
“His paintings had a kind of liquid quality, a liquid surface where you could see the layers throughout,” Taylor said. “In its layered construction, you seem to be looking within – maybe looking back, or looking forward.”
Duane Slick: Coyote Enhances SunsetUntil May 8 at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 258 Main Street, Ridgefield, Conn., 203-438-4519, thealdrich.org.