One Thing Leads to Another

Robert Cozzolino, Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings, Minneapolis Institute of Art

What a pleasure to peer into Jim Denomie’s creative cauldron. A view into any artist’s sketchbook is a rare treat, a trust of intimacy and vulnerability. That Jim welcomes our eager eyes speaks to his deeper spirit of generosity and kindness, qualities his community has come to know. With that relationship comes the expectation that we truly see Jim and are attentive to what he has to say. He draws forth a lyrical history full of hilarious critique and riddled with deeply painful passages. Jim’s large complex narrative paintings are animated with the nuances of his lived experience and that of his ancestors. They are the powerful history paintings of our time, made with the knowledge that past and present speak to one another, talk back, argue, and ultimately strive for a future. Jim’s vision has that weight and he carries it with a sense of purpose and dignity that gives it such gravity. To explore how the past continues to haunt the present and to speak directly to how its echoing sounds color the everyday is a heavy task. Its results, in Jim’s hands, have opened eyes but have also provoked outrage. Those unwilling to admit that he speaks the truth or to do their own self-reflection find themselves further ingredients in his stew.

It is not surprising to see that Jim’s large narrative paintings develop from sketches, parts and sections growing out of inspired drawings eventually forming dynamic relationships in a shared landscape. These vignettes originate in quick ink drawings composed of lines that reveal their agitated and urgent transcription from intangible thought to present image. In other hands, those fiery sparks of inspiration might lose their volatile immediacy when scaled up into a painting. Yet it is instructive to see how Jim has been attentive to the shift in materials, allowing sharp staccato ink ideas to have new life in sticky imprecise paint. There they retain the sense of life and emotional purpose of the line drawings while manifesting a transformation to the polyphonic language of paint.

While several pages in Jim’s sketchbooks relate directly to his well-known paintings – such as Eminent Domain: A Brief History of America (2011) or Standing Rock 2016 (2018) – it is illuminating to see related ideas that did not find their way into paint. A sketch from 2014 shows how Jim’s humor is bitingly spot-on with regard to current conversations in our culture. The Lone Ranger and Tonto sit together a bar, drinking. Cigarette in hand, the Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and casually asks, “What do you know?” Tonto replies, “I know a circumcised penis is hard to de-colonize.” Typical of Jim Denomie’s work, there is much contained in this brief but hilarious exchange. Cultural stereotypes like the set represented by these characters are really the lowest hanging fruit, and Jim has placed them in numerous mythic scenarios from the Last Supper to Manifest Destiny. What Jim allows Tonto to say here hints at a deeper critique of conquest, religion, gender issues, and performative allyship. He sharply points the viewer towards these complex and contentious conversations through a straightforward set up of pop culture characters talking. Moments like this make looking at Jim’s quick sketches critical. They support and feed the underlying themes of his grand paintings, whether they appear there or remain in their nascent form.

It is also illuminating to see what Jim draws between those bursts of work  that become multipart narrative paintings. Because they are not destined to become provocative public statements, they feel more intimate, unguarded, allowing facets of Jim’s personality to relax. Some of these drawings are likely connected to Jim’s practice of remembering dreams directly into his sketchbook. Pages like “storyteller” dated June 16, 2019 read like a glimpse into his unconscious where his conception of an artist’s calling is made visible. Connected to the earth through the tree on which he blooms, a head in profile emits pictures rather than words or sound, and they intermingle with the cosmos: planet, distant stars, sun, and moon. Jim’s spirit avatar, the rabbit, appears without bounds, flying on fluttering wings. It has a human counterpart in the man diving into the sky, an image that appears on its own in a 2011 drawing. Cycles of life, images of creation, death, eroticism, sacred images, nature protectors, all swirl around the storyteller, set into a time stream apart from him yet connected to his consciousness.  

Two other self-portraits ground this theme as central to Jim’s identity as an artist. In New Orleans he drew a playful self-portrait (dated April 26, 2017) that makes his distinctive features clear. Spirit animals peer over his right shoulder, little cats climb upon his left, and ants trail up his shirt to rest on his cheeks and forehead. Other animals, like unruly creatures dissembled from a totem, argue atop his head or fly through the air. His spirit rabbit hovers nearby, as a guardian minding the situation. About a year earlier (March 26, 2016) Jim made a direct self-portrait drawing that reveals how much he sees. There are no trickster creatures, no traces of dreams or daytime visions of a painful history. It is a Jim Denomie we never see in his art, but the Jim that his friends know. He looks out from the sketchbook page, eyes buzzing with energy and absorption. His bare shoulders relax and his thin ponytail trails softly down his left side, just past his collarbone. Ears alert, mouth a place of calm, he meets us, open to the experience that connection brings. It is a sensitively observed, compassionate expression of who he is, and one accurate to my experience. Around the edges, from the back of his neck, and along the curve of his head, wiry electric hairs tingle like antennae seeking the otherworldly. It is subtle, but there.

A peek into an artist’s sketchbook, like a studio visit, is a privilege, a sacred invitation and one that must be made with openness and respect. Each sketch, like Jim’s wide array of paintings, is a fragment of a whole, connecting visions that contribute to a parallel world. Seeing them deepens our understanding of the art, but also of the person making the art. It leads to new ways of seeing artistic practice, reveals what lies beneath publicly exhibited paintings, and opens up further questions of meaning. What a pleasure to peer into Jim Denomie’s creative cauldron; clearly there is a lot more bubbling up.