I have to admit that I’ve always been ambivalent about Kent Monkman‘s work. That hasn’t changed, but I’ve finally found a way to look at it and not see it as tedious. Monkman, winner of the Hnatyshyn 2014 Prize for excellence in the visual arts and winner of 2014 Indspire Award, has been the poster child (or pin-up girl) for politicized art in the country for awhile. His latest exhibit, Urban Res, at PFOAC displays homoerotic aboriginal youths with tattooed angels, spirit warriors, figures from Picasso and Francis Bacon, all running riot in what appears to be Manitoba. It plays on images of Christian martyrdom and echoes some of Attila Lukacs’ earlier work. By coincidence, it also benefits from the imagery of the latest racial fiascoes south of the border to have become the fodder for an orgy of televised and online stupidity. I mention this largely because the sizable volume of writings to accumulate around Monkman tends to replay many of the same underlying moral and political arguments, albeit in more domesticated, if no less pretentious, tones.
The images of Urban Res are narratively suggestive, even seductive, but any attempt to unpack them or detect symbolic functionality is doomed to failure. Half a dozen dissonant readings could easily be given concerning his figures and these readily negate each other. This doesn’t leave them open to interpretation so much as deny that interpreting them is seriously worthwhile. Instead, at his best, he is riffing on fads concerning representation and the anxieties it wreaks. He should be credited for crushing any notion of the validity of subjective reading. His paintings seduce and exploit his viewers’ capacities to be specious. If you think his paintings are meaningful, you are a twit succumbing to the glamour of political performance. I don’t wish to impute that he has such a Machiavellian, if business savvy, strategy, but it is how his images objectively function.
Over the years, his painting (or rather the painting he orders his workers to do) has become increasingly slack. At this point it lurches somewhere between a mediocre and adequate grade twelve level. The rendering of flames in his riot scenes is so (I assume intentionally) bad that it is hilarious. It’s not naive painting since that would have the potential to be accidentally charming. It is just mediocre painting because the performance of painting, even if this performance is largely limited to pastiche followed by dictation, is what he’s after. Inept rendition mirrors failed symbolization. Figures exist in an ill-defined zone of sexual desire, not articulate meaning. This says far more about the nature of the work than the ambiguous ‘content’ that it contains. This ‘content’ is a marketing maneuver; his art is the art of marketing. This is certainly impressive, but it has even less critical or analytical significance than a Beyonce video. If you have some time to kill, try reading reviews of his work to see how readily critics fall over themselves as they attempt to pretend this is not the case.
Monkman’s work is about Indigenous politics, identity and experience to about the same degree that drag is actually about women. More than anything, Monkman’s work is really about Monkman’s work. It was a set of meta jokes for twenty years that finally evolved into simply being a joke about itself. This may be why so much of the imagery in his past few shows suggests a meta-apocalypse. It’s not very funny, but that’s when a joke starts to become a rather queer thing.