The first time I visited Kent Monkman’s Toronto studio, four or so years ago, I was taken aback by an unexpected sight. At its center was an immense canvas in progress upon which Monkman was painstakingly copying, from reproduction back to original dimensions, Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868. Ever quick to judge, Monkman’s painting struck me as mechanically attentive to surface, abdicating decisions, somewhat soulless. This preliminary pictorial state, as all of his paintings since 2001 similarly have been generated, would finally backdrop Trappers of Men, 2006, commissioned by The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
The term landscape seems insufficient applied to the enveloping effect of Bierstadt. His painting expresses an artist (and so, vicariously, his viewer) enrapt in absolute and solitary communion with virgin nature. Earth, water and mountains climb uninterrupted into the sky. The conceit is one’s approach to the outer boundary of a consecrated Eden—unaffected by history, destiny or, certainly, man. Fleeting wonder at a magnificent Western vista fermented in Bierstadt’s mind into its euphoric realization on return to his studio in the East. Yet enough mud remained on his boots to maintain senses of ecological, climatic and scenic integrity.
The reflection-of-a-reflection-of-a-figment aspect underlying Monkman’s painting troubled me. However I underestimated his awareness. Monkman had a long side career as a stage designer. As a filmmaker, he clearly paid ample prior attention to the phenomenon of a screen catching ephemeral projections of light. His methodical recreation of historical painting is a theatrical strategy. Monkman is a dramaturge. He stages this paradise, gathering before the painted image of a lakeside a cast of louche characters, Aboriginal and European. Since time was formerly discounted by Bierstadt, these men signify a historical range that allegorically exceeds any ordinary lifespan. But in populating the scene, Monkman does introduce upon it time. To confound the situation all the more, every head has turned towards a Messianic apparition hovering above the water. Is Eternity meant to reign?
In challenging Bierstadt (as he has other Romantic artist-adventurers of the nineteenth-century, such as Paul Kane or George Catlin) Monkman does not deny his ability, sincerity or dedication. Most frontier painters trod more decently westward than did soldiers, settlers, prospectors or such. The record of artist encounters with Aboriginals largely treated them as human, sometimes even fellow humans. But sacralising pictures of the West amounted to an iconographic erasure of its inhabitants, their culture and civilization. Romantic mania for purity supported ideological claim and conquest by European intruders. Monkman’s countermeasure, exposing a former artist’s lifelong quest for chimera, regains some ground.
Ben Portis lives in Toronto. As guest curator, he has remounted Kent Monkman: The Triumph of Mischief, originally organized by David Liss and Shirley Madill, for the particular setting of the Glenbow Museum, with its renowned collections of historical and First Nations art, in Calgary, the heart of the Canadian West. The exhibition runs from February 14 to April 25, 2010.