White album

Duane Slick's minimalist meditations
By GREG COOK  |  December 29, 2008

SPACE FOR REFLECTION: Getting the full effect of Slick's paintings requires patience and long looking.

The best of the work on view in "Duane Slick and Critical Distance," at Rhode Island College's Bannister Gallery (600 Mount Pleasant Avenue, Providence, through January 8), is what you might call painters' paintings. They feature iconic imagery, but the main attraction is the seductive way he builds up white-on-white layers of paint until it resembles cake frosting or pond ice. It's an act of exquisite, alluring craftsmanship with especial appeal to those familiar with the thrills of pushing paint around.

Slick, who lives in North Providence and teaches painting at RISD, is a descendant of the Meskwaki of Iowa and the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) of Nebraska. When a Native American artist obsesses on the color white, it's pretty safe to assume a political message is involved. One of the umbrella titles he has used for recent work is Instructions On the Care and Use of White Space. The title simultaneously mulls white space as a formal issue of painting, as white-cube galleries, as an ethnically white art world, as a metaphor for a white-dominated nation.

Native American art is still mostly viewed as traditional-style crafts sold as tourist tokens. But Slick is part of a generation of Native artists (others include Edgar Heap of Birds, Truman Lowe, and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, who happen to be among 10 artists featured in a print portfolio displayed in cases outside the gallery) who merge contemporary international art practices with Native styles. The work is as varied as the people — ranging from realist to abstract painting to performance art to conceptual art broadsides. Emerging after the American Indian civil rights movement of the 1960s and '70s and concurrent with art of identity politics in the 1980s and '90s, their work often plumbs the history and traditions of Native Americans and confronts their place — past and present — amidst the (generally) oppressive and obliterating white European culture of the United States.

Slick's Native American themes are most apparent in The Meaning of Art (2004), a suite of Plexiglas "book" pages that form a scattershot collage poem of words and images. It includes photos of Slick with or without a ponytail (the actual cutoff braid is sealed in a box at one end), Native Americans in traditional garb, a fawn, and the frozen corpse of Chief Big Foot, who was killed when the US Army massacred Sioux at Wounded Knee in South Dakota in winter of 1890. "Within Indian country that is the ultimate image of Indian martyrdom because those people were killed while trying to practice their beliefs," Slick says. There are lists of words (crop circles, Uday Hussein, Dow Jones, the IRA sets off another bomb), brief anecdotes (will gas discovered under the traditional range of nomadic reindeer herders in the former Soviet Union destroy their way of life?), and the refrain: "I long to believe your intervention will guide the outcome of my actions."

But the heart of the show is the white-on-white paintings in which Native references are more obscure. Under layers of translucent white paint, ghostly gray shadows flicker — a masked Navajo wolf dancer doll that Slick bought at Pequot powwow, a Mexican papier-mâchû coyote mask, bird and butterfly stencils he bought in a Santa Fe shop ("Everything is for sale out there").

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