Editor's note: The following text was reprinted in Resource Library on December 17, 2007 with the permission of the Tweed Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Tweed Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Thoughts on Rabbett Before Horses' Pictorial Narrative
by Ken Bloom
Our collective desire is to reconcile the unknown with understanding. It is through story that we maneuver ourselves through an essentially mysterious world. Ideas that arise in the space between the telling and one's receiving, amid words and silences, transform in accordance to rules free of gravity. Perhaps, that is why we can fly while dreaming. We are carried into an ephemeral and cohering realm, where suggestion lives free of conventional physics and the perception by linear time. In this realm as well, we are just as subject to fear as to freedom, to death as to hope. I suppose that's why it is important to have good storytellers, good spirit guides.
In Rabbett Before Horses' paintings we are witness to an ideological handshake between the artist and his classical and modern predecessors that stretch, at least, from the archaic Greek painter Lydos' depiction of Dionysus among Satyrs and Maenads, to Francisco Goya's depiction of dreaming in The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, and beyond. Following in that tradition, Rabbett Before Horses renders highly descriptive visions of what appear to be mythical scenarios onto mural sized canvases populated by creatures, people and some ominous transfused versions of both. The artist's visual narrative suggests seriality and turns on pictorial storytelling devices. Though pictorially lush, beauty is not intended to be seen at face value. Characters inside these stories have multifarious motivations. After all, Nanabozho is both human and godly, thus suffers from caprice. The elements of these stories, their symbolism and reality coincide -- as Greek drama functions -- wherein tragedy distinguishes itself from comedy only in so far as the hero may fall. Such storytelling conjoins parallel worlds -- that which is, and that which the storyteller envisions. Strickland insists that we see both. The internal logic of the imagery is based on history -- fact and legend -- that is represented in iconic terms.
Rabbett Before Horses' panascopic vision is accessible, but calls for some degree of culpability. The stories are overtly bound by a pre-existing out-of-the-frame narrative, a back story, rife with mystical contingencies and unresolved inherited memories of violence.
In scale and composition these works are unsettling because they are reminiscent of natural-history museum dioramas. In these museum depictions, Indians are made safe by encapsulation and desiccation. Moreover, interpretation is dictated and the past put to rest. Yet in this version, past and present are activated, giving the viewer a live perspective.
Overall, the work stands on its internal logic yet seems to suggest a balletic ritual to exorcize unrequited spirits. Thus its center of gravity is meta-physical, kharmic, yet real in that the visions exist as history exists -- the forms ever transforming according to the teller. That is what constitutes the cost of history. It is certainly the reason dominant cultures fear history being retold by those who voices have been denied. In this case, the history that Rabbett Before Horses presents remains relevant. His polemic insists against denial.
Rabbett Before Horses treads quietly yet tenaciously. His choices of detail suggest definition and narrative clarity, yet much of the pictorial space has been allowed to remain soft, gently transitioned; the pictorial equivalent of having not dotted 'i's and not crossed the 't's. Of particular note is an ambiguity of gender, in the lack of genitals and the animal-like distortions conferred upon the characters that represent invaders. Is this a refusal of their humanity? They carry a staff headed with the symbol of ouroboros, a snake that eats its own tail. Is this a comment on Manifest Destiny? Western free will? Are these destroyers impotent?
Because the history of Native-American studio painting is recent and the essential Native tradition from which Rabbett is taking his imagery is narrative, more questions arise. Is this artist simply to be understood as an American painter, allowing his Native origins to be hyphenated or footnoted? What then, if any, is the significance of origin of the artist from the standpoint of understanding the work? Is the work merely contingent upon history? What then is the meaning of surviving works by artists unknown? What is the role of the hybrid cultural producer? What is the function of a hybrid cultural object? Does its derivation from lore require the same interpretive devices as a work of individual imagination? What if those two conditions are conjoined? How does one read the representation of a dream?
In any event, Rabbett Before Horses honors the classicists, defies the expressive excesses of contemporary urban, post-industrial forms, while fiercely projecting topical issues and mythic parallels into the present. To address these many questions and to provide the artist's voice, the artist and I submit the following interview.
About the author
Ken Bloom is Director, Tweed Museum of Art.
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Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Peter F. Spooner and Topher McCulloch, Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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