Artist Gregg Deal equates punk rockers and Native Americans in art

The exhibition “End of Silence” is based on a simple yet sweeping premise: that the ethos of punk rock musicians who began infiltrating popular music in the 1970s are similar to the ethos of current-day Native Americans striving to claim their place in contemporary society.

Gregg Deal — a “multi-disciplinary artist, activist and disruptor,” according to the show’s text — takes this assertion to the maximum, using lyrics from iconic punk-era bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Black Flag and The Specials to inspire an extended series of acrylic-and-ink paintings that address crucial aspects of evolving American Indian identity.

The pieces, currently at RedLine Contemporary Art Center, are loud in every way. Deal integrates text into his paintings to directly quote in-your-face lyrics about inequity and invisibility, and renders his images of Hollywood-style Indians and frontier soldiers in bold, saturated colors. Most of the works look like the frames cut from classic comic books with dialogue spelled out in bubbles that form points at the bottom indicating which character in the scene is uttering them.

Deal, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, based in what is now Nevada, connects the dots — with plenty of irony and almost no subtlety — between the angry rock-‘n’-rollers of the recent past and current Native Americans who are “pushing against power structures that restrict, oppress or suppress; questioning and challenging authority.”

You could argue against the show’s premise, and fairly. There is plenty of fault to find in equating the struggles of people dealing with a barbaric legacy of displacement and near annihilation, followed by generations of discrimination, exploitation (both financial and cultural) and double-crossing with the angst of pop stars, no matter how authentic their music felt at the time.

The sincerity and credibility of the punk rock movement have been argued incessantly since its heyday. Yes, there was genuine anger and frustration, and it was keenly rendered and legitimately inspiring to a generation of misfit youth. Punk was real.

But it was also business, conducted with mainstream record labels, concert promoters, fashion designers and MTV-style videographers. Punk was art, not life or death, and it is troubling, at least to me, to associate its beefs with Margaret Thatcher’s government to the threat of attempted genocide that defines, to a very significant degree, the story of indigenous North Americans.

But Deal and his curator, Louise Martorano, do make a thoughtful and resonant argument for their case, effectively employing the many lyrics that run throughout the works. And it can be uncanny.

Consider the overlap of lyrics from the band Stiff Little Fingers, spelled out in Deal’s painting “Suspect Device,” with the anthemic pleas of present-day Native American activists:

“They take away our freedom
In the name of liberty
Why can’t they all just clear off
Why can’t they let us be
They make us feel indebted
For saving us from hell
And then they put us through it
It’s time the bastards fell”

Deal makes the most of the shared sentiment. He places the words in a conversation bubble coming from the sort of Indian brave you might see in an old Western film, a strong, stereotyped and fictional  “noble savage” suffering through indignities with dignity, as if all it took was a stiff upper lip to bear the trauma. In this way, he addresses not just displacement but also centuries of bad treatment by everyone from government bureaucrats to artists.

Here is another example, more poetic perhaps, of where punk lyrics (as presented through Deal’s artistic frame) appear to echo sentiments that might be expressed by Native Americans now. It’s from the painting “Got Each Other,” which borrows from the current ska band The Interrupters:

“Make our home in the sacred ground
We’ve been here for years
Solid in foundation
The blood, sweat, and tears
Raise your voice, stand side by side
And we will sing forever
We don’t have much
But we got each other!”

It’s not just the redirected semantics that make the works powerful — which they are, especially when they reach almost monumental proportions. Some canvases stretch 6 or 8 feet in height, and one mural, applied directly to the gallery’s rear wall, is probably twice that size. Deal also allows them to get violent.

His scenes are full of brutality: knife fights and choking, battle scenes with bows and arrows and guns. It’s gritty stuff perpetrated by men — all men — with angry faces staring down one another.

He heightens the tension by painting an abstract angst into the backgrounds of his scenes. There are dark blotches and slashes of paint that drip as if they were blood. He incorporates traditional Indian symbols — zigzag patterns and crosses — both inside his paintings and on the walls around them, but leaves them hazy and incomplete. The works, and the way they are arranged, can be unsettling.

That said, they are not unpalatable, thanks to the comic book motif. Cartoon violence just doesn’t feel obscene, even when it documents actual violence. Even some of the song lyrics that are particularly fierce feel innocuous when presented via this colorful format with a long tradition of serving as children’s entertainment.

There are contradictions in “End of Silence.” In some ways the work does have an aura of being punk-rock raw; Deal is anything but a commercial artist and he makes few compromises. His ugly canvasses do permit the lyrics to come off as their originators intended, as “a fearless, uncensored affront to systems that do not represent them and were built without them,” as Martorano puts it in her curator’s statement.

But there is also something a little too neat and clean about the exhibition as a whole. Despite the content, it’s orderly and elegant, and hyper-contained in RedLine’s architecturally forward, floor-polished white cube gallery. It’s not messy like the music it wants us to connect with, not dangerous enough to reflect a genre defined by concerts where musicians were known to smash equipment and spit on their own audiences.

Even with that criticism, however, it is easy to call “End of Silence” one of the best, and most ambitious, exhibitions this year in the region. It has a lot to say, as much about painting and pop culture as it does the politics of convenience, human mistreatment and oppression — and in that way it lives up to its title. It makes the connection it wants to make, across time periods, across art forms, at a very high volume.

IF YOUI GO
“End of Silence” continues through Oct. 12 at RedLine Contemporary Art Center, 2350 Arapahoe St. Info: 303-296-4448  or redlineart.org.

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