THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, near Tuba City, Arizona, Diné painter Ryan Singer, a member of the Tódich'ii'nii (Bitter Water) Clan, grew up drawing obsessively on and around Dinétah, or the Navajo Nation. He also spent many hours of his childhood taking in sci-fi and fantasy flicks with his older sister.
Today he lives and works in downtown Albuquerque, but the landscapes of his youth still figure prominently in his paintings, as do the iconic characters and creatures of cinematic myth who still enter his dream world at night. Explaining his predilection for picture making, he states, “My mother always got me art supplies and encouraged me. I think that was all it took.”
Singer’s paintings are pop-surreal concoctions that elide traditional and contemporary Diné cultural references with sci-fi and gamer icons from mainstream sources in satirical ways that (at least initially) amuse and beguile. In “Childhood Mythologies,” Singer’s first solo foray at Santa Fe’s form & concept gallery, the best moments are explorations of the intersectionality of indigeneity and the pop-mythology of the interstellar series Star Wars.
Singer’s colorful style has a no-nonsense directness lifted in parts from comic books and modernist expressionism. It is designed for concision of execution and clarity of delivery. As with Honoré Daumier, dark outlines predominate; as with William Hogarth, the content ranges from pretty damn clever to outright hilarious.
(De)Colonized Ewok is an example of the latter. Side by side are painted portraits of an Ewok in traditional regalia and, again, the same Ewok dressed as a rebel commander at war with the Galactic Empire, a colonizing entity of extreme power. It evokes the photographic strategies of artists like Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper or James Luna.
Ryan Singer, (De)Colonized Ewok, 2019. Acrylic on canvas,
30 x 40 in. Courtesy form & concept gallery, Santa Fe, NM
Indeed, the “Force” is strong with this one. In Sand People Sand Painting, two aliens alienated from Tatooine sit on small rugs on the floor of a traditional Hogan structure, precisely arranging colored sand to depict a geometric image of an R2D2-like droid.
Ryan Singer, Sand People Sand Painting, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Courtesy form & concept gallery,
Santa Fe, NM.
The painting takes its power from the tongue-in-cheek humor of its central pun, and the less palatable fact that many Euro-Americans and their kids probably have a better grasp of the fictional culture of the Tusken Raiders than they do of the sacred realities of Indian country and the genocide of First Nations peoples carried out by their settler ancestors across this continent.
So, rally the rebels and resist. Our final scene is Singer’s Scorched Earth Policy. The viewer looks over Darth Kit Carson’s shoulder as he pursues an X-wing, piloted (presumably) by Chief Manuelito, as it navigates the tight canyon walls of a ubiquitous Southwestern desert landscape of red rock mesas and blue skies (ironically laced with chemtrails).
Ryan Singer, Scorched Earth Policy, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30 in. Courtesy form & concept gallery, Santa Fe, NM.
Instead of the mechanical channels of the imaginary Death Star, the setting is Canyon De Chelly in 1864, where Kit Carson enacted a “scorched earth policy” against the Diné, ordering his men to destroy all human beings, food crops and livestock, including ancient peach orchards, in order to starve the rebels out that winter. Those who hadn’t already starved to death or suicided were forced to march over 400 miles across the desert for “relocation.” Raise your hand, kiddos, if you’ve ever been “relocated”, or contrariwise, if Cowboy Kit was one of your mythopoetic childhood heroes.
So, Singer’s arch analogy comparing the so-called “greatest nation on earth” to the evilest force in the galaxy is right on. From the very beginning, the United States of America has been under the control of Sith Lords in the form of colonial slave-rapists and self-proclaimed “Indian Killers” like Andrew Jackson and Honest Abe Lincoln. It is currently master-minded by Darth Donald, another and especially idiotic white supremacist who may well simply destroy all humanity through climate catastrophe denial and dumb time wasted on the dark side.
What is the story of your childhood? Is it one of struggle or one of privilege? And which of childhood’s multiple mythologies still influence your dreams? These are the questions Ryan Singer’s work poses. While ironic juxtapositions of pop-culture and native history initially cause guffaws and chuckles, that’s just the spoonful of sugar, and before you know it, Singer’s zingers have slipped you a dose of good medicine.
When I spoke to the artist, I remarked that while the work was quite successful, some of the pieces had a “dark subtext,” as they included extremities of evil that our society generally prefers to whitewash. He said, “You could see it that way. I prefer to see it as using my art and sense of humor to raise awareness.” It’s an important distinction.
May the force (of course) be with you. Or as the People1 say—May you walk in beauty. Through ancestry, upbringing, and wry observation, Ryan Singer seems to be doing just that, for as all artists know, there is no beauty without truth.
by Jon Carver
"Childhood Mythologies was on view at form & concept, Santa Fe, NM from March 29 through May 25, 2019.
Jon Carver writes and paints from his off-grid hideout at the back of a box canyon near Santa Fe. He is an instructor in studio arts and art history at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
1 Almost every Native American tribe’s name means “The People” or
something similar in its own language.
Make a MONTHLY DONATION or a ONE-TIME DONATION via PayPal
SUBSCRIBE to the print version of the New Art Examiner via PayPal