“Here’s where we go off the map
Out past the power lines
Up that little side road without a sign
Hidden from the mainstream
The keepers of the ancient future
Keepers of the drum they don’t preserve it
They live it.” – “Rattlebone” by Robbie Robertson
The work of Ric Gendron corrals the vibrancy of Fritz Scholder with a sense of honesty at once Salish and Spokane.
“Rattlebone,” a traveling exhibition spanning 30 years of the artist’s work, will open at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe on Aug. 22. That weekend also will mark his 18th appearance at the Santa Fe Indian Market.
“Ric is very under-recognized,” independent curator and author Ben Mitchell said in a telephone interview. “Ric is someone who paints every single day. He is a terrible business person and he’s never had a good feeling for the energy and organization it takes to be successful.
“And I think that kind of recognition is not important to Ric,” Mitchell added. “He’s a very soulful person.”
Gendron is a dually enrolled member of the Arrow Lakes Band of Confederated Tribes of the Colville and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla falling under the Salish linguistics umbrella. He paints with a vivid expression and lyricism, owing as much to the Fauvists (think Henri Mattise and André Derain) and the tortured figures of Francis Bacon as he does to Scholder.
“Nobody was painting the Indian the way the Indian actually lived,” Gendron said in a telephone interview from his Spokane studio, ” – reservation life and things that go on in Indian culture. (Scholder) painted the Indian with a beer can. His use of color and his expressive brush strokes were so strong to me.”
Gendron’s paintings differ from Scholder’s in two significant aspects, MOCNA curator Candice Hopkins said. He uses Technicolor paints, often daubed directly from the tube without alteration. He incorporates pop-culture motifs such as jazz musicians and comic-book characters into his compositions.
“But then he’s painted things that are not comforting, like the boarding-school experience of his family,” she added.
Gendron’s 25-year canon is overwhelmingly figurative, taking inspiration from the artist R. Crumb (“Fritz the Cat”), the cartoons of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the music of T-Bone Walker and John Coltrane, as well as The Band’s Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), who penned the song that became the exhibition title.
“I’ve been playing that CD (1998’s ‘Contact From the Underworld of Redboy’) ever since,” he said. “I wear one out and I get another one. Listening to the words and lyrics of Robbie Robertson, I felt like I’ve lived that – just having one foot on the traditional ceremonial part of life and another in the every day, paying the bills. And diving deep into tradition and ceremony, which I have done. It’s like jumping back and forth and back and forth. One day I’m doing an opening at a museum; dressing up and actually combing my hair and going back home and participating in ceremonial things. So the body of work takes all that in, too.”
Gendron’s joy in color is unabashed; the richly saturated hues in his 2008 acrylic painting “On the Way Home” nearly glow. The artist’s humor surfaces in the quietly subversive line of headdress-topped Native horsemen hoisting umbrellas over their impeccable traditional dress.
“We don’t really know where they’ve been,” Gendron said. “Maybe they were visiting another camp. Or maybe they were picking huckleberries. It’s like a family portrait.
“The parasols – there are historic photographs (showing) that Native people did use parasols they acquired by trade. It’s a juxtaposition against photographs of those very strong, chiseled warriors.”
“Chief Wolf” sits glumly in a suit and tie, a bouquet of paintbrushes sprouting from his headdress.
“It’s supposed to represent a war bonnet,” Gendron said. “In a more traditional sense, each feather is earned by something that person had done in his life. My war bonnet was I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I can’t throw away paintbrushes. Each one of these brushes could probably tell a story in the creation of the work.”
The image both appropriates and mocks the 19th-century photograph of the noble Indian.
The artist lifted the face from the old “Archie” comic books.
“I kind of designed the guy after Mr. Weatherbee, who was the principal at the Riverdale High School,” he said.
“Ice Cream Indian” is an homage to Scholder, who painted his own version in 1971.
“His was with a big buffalo headdress,” Gendron said. “You know, artists are the biggest plagiarists I know.”
Poetry and music are central to Gendron’s life. He returns regularly to the Beat poets he read in high school and college, as well as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Lou Reed, Tom Waits and Robertson.
“I listen to everything,” he said. “I’ll come in and put on Patti Smith or the Ramones and later in the day I’ll listen to Yo-Yo Ma and everything in between. So the body of work has all that in it, too.”
As a boy, Mitchell was constantly drawing and looking out the window when he was supposed to be paying attention in school. He played guitar in garage bands, absorbing the rebellious spirit of the ’60s and ’70s, including the demonstrations and sit-ins of the American Indian Movement.
“He didn’t get pushed through the academic sieve of post-modernism in academic painting,” Mitchell said. “He had his own vision.”
Gendron takes most of the blame for his lack of public recognition. He remains in Spokane to be with his family. He watches eight grandchildren.
“I really don’t go too much out of my way,” he said. “I watch artists promote themselves with websites and that’s great.
“I’ve kicked myself in the butt, too,” he added. “The only way I can answer is I don’t know; I’m just me.”
Gendron has exhibited at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, the Blue Sage Gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz., at Purdue University and at Seattle’s Center on Contemporary Art.