As early as 65 BC, Horace used satire to criticize his world. Years later, Hogarth in his paintings and engravings The Rake’s Progress skewered 17th century morals. In the 1960s, protesters had a Pandora’s Box of issues to disparage, and did so with art as well as music. But in the 21st century, when headlines blare bombings and beheadings, many artists are curiously silent as social critics. Except for Kent Monkman. His intellectually elegant works consistently challenge canons with their staged tableaux, sending a rebellious message against the status quo.

The internationally renowned artist uses provocative wit to confront traditional views of aboriginal people. For years, the ‘noble savage’ was portrayed as an idealized masculinity, living amidst unendingly sublime scenes of forests and mountains. Riffing on these epic traditions, Monkman re-stages paradise, but it is full of parody. While his grand scale landscapes recall the classical approach of 19th century artists such as George Catlin and Albert Bierstadt, Monkman adds a gay sensuality that challenges the clichés of aboriginal culture. A Brokeback Mountain sexuality nestles among them-there hills. Monkman not only addresses the love that dare not speak its name; he revels in it.

Appearing in his paintings, videos and installations is Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Kent Monkman’s alter ego, in draggy, dress-up glory. Her feathered warrior headdress is paired with platform heels. As a First Nations artist of Cree and Irish ancestry, Monkman offers a tongue- in-chic criticism of established views. As a humorous shape shifter, the artist makes his statement against the dominant interpretations of his culture. Those with a dual sexuality, aboriginal two-spirit people called berdaches, ‘‘were encountered by Catlin, but he refused to include them in his paintings of ‘traditional’ aboriginal life.’’ But berdaches ‘‘were not only accepted; they were revered in their tribe.’’ In a nod to these spirits, Monkman adds racy males to his vast vistas. But his work is not simply guys getting it on and his boldly beautiful doppelganger: he appropriates art history, using references and illusions to drive his point home.

The artist’s training in illustration led him to study the Old Masters, whose influence can be noted in many of his paintings. He adds a frisson of recognition to his work, by echoing their style and characters, often using allegorical references from Renaissance art. ‘‘I pillage the history of painting from the Baroque era to Romanticism to challenge the subjectivity of the European eye on aboriginal peoples of the New World.’’ His Miss America recalls Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Four Continents cycle. In this large work (213 cm x 335 cm) Monkman offers multiple entendres as he critiques the culture of consumerism. He adds references that oblige the viewer to step away from the gnat-like attention span of the Internet to ‘get’ the illusions. In the background, silhouetted against an Inca-style pyramid, the famed charred remains of the September 11 twin towers stand in stark solitude. Driven to drowning by a bullet-ridden car, and pierced with Saint-Sebastien-style arrows, a man’s upside down body recalls Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. Pirates pillage whilst wearing fashionable brands. Motifs, such as a Canada goose, stand cheek to cheeky cheek. The nuanced backstories add layers of meaning. Above the chaos rides Miss Chief in a colourful headdress and her beribboned stilettos; queen of the day.

Miss Chief starred again in Monkman’s latest work, Bête Noire, an installation in Santa Fe. Seated on a massive motorcycle – macho biker culture anyone? – in front of a panorama of mountains and plains with far-away grazing bison, she peers down at a Picasso-style cubist bull, its flat shape felled by one of her pink arrows. The buffalo echoes classic landscape paintings, while the dead animal, portrayed in black and white, recalls Guernica. Miss Chief doubles as Cher. In fact, Monkman models his alter ego on Cher, who performed in a sexy sparkly native costume for her 1970’s hit ‘Half Breed’. A twisted turn of the tables that makes the reverse takeoff double-edged; genre- and gender-bending. Adding another amusing twist on stereotypes, Monkman made a bra out of a dream-catcher, a traditionally viewed aboriginal object. The artist’s juxtapositions force the viewer to re-consider stereotypes.

The core issue of the artist’s seductive art is that his irony acts as a 21th century protest; a sardonic criticism of modern life. His sense of humour drives the message home. His latest installation in a French chateau has a beaver – Canada? – gnawing away at a desk – the establishment? And often, Miss Chief wears a gorgeous quiver of arrows: It is branded Louis Vuitton. His art hits its mark.

Kent Monkman has exhibited widely in Canada, and is represented in numerous private and public collections. Last summer, he was artist-in-residence at Montreal’s McCord Museum. His new series of acrylic paintings, The Urban Res, opens at Galerie Pierre-François Ouellette on November 13, 2014. 

Galerie Pierre François Ouellette, Montréal
November 13—December 20, 2014