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"Brown-Eyed Rabbit" is the name of Jim Denomie's recent show at the Todd Bockley Gallery. How can I explain how right that name is? There's so much to know before you can know this—and that's part of what makes Denomie's work so valuable. To see it, or to come to be able to see it, you have to see a lot more. It makes you step back, and back again, to enlarge your field of vision to encompass "America" from the outside as well as the inside. And it's tempting enough to make you want to do it.
Denomie's an Ojibwe artist whose life is made up of at least two cultures, plus that of the art world—an adventurer in any world that surrounds him. He likes to go golfing with the pickup foursomes that golf courses put together: Maybe he'll be grouped with a lawyer, a plumber, and a salesman. He's curious about lives other than his own.
But Denomie also has long Native hair. The rabbit in the title of his show is the animal form of Nanaboujou, the Ojibwe culture hero, intermediary between the divine and the human. Nanaboujou embodies contradiction but is emphatically himself, singular, powerful. He's also often funny. And he's an artist, a maker. That rabbit often appears in Denomie's paintings; the rabbit is his double.
His satirical Rabelaisian painting series "Renegades" I saw 10 years ago. In a crowded group show in Duluth I saw Transitions from that series, and was blown away by gusts of incredulous laughter and equally astounded tears: A group of Indians are riding winged horses, and some are in a flying Volkswagen. They're pegging golf clubs at a giant flying chicken, weaving through rainbow buttes in some otherworldly West. A number-one wood is aimed right at the viewer; you wait to be hit between the eyes. I loved the painting and looked for his work after that.
Since then I've seen the hallucinatory presences in his erotic landscapes and the intense colors of his prints. There've been more "Renegades": Indians riding horses through space, horses with jet-powered asses, White Castle white-people forts, cop cars with grinning Indians popping like jack-in-the-boxes from the trunks. And most recently, he's done a painting-a-day series: small works, brushy and wild, haunting images of faces, faces that grin like death and grin like life, wildly colored or brooding in sepia and brown, all different, all the same.
Denomie's recent show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts summed up a lot of this work; his show at the Bockley Gallery fills it out. At Bockley, the drawings that came before the paintings have the vivid sense of notes taken in dreams, and the paintings in the show push the gleeful rage of his work to the borders of his obvious relish for life.
Denomie's life, his work, a dance with contradiction, is unfolding.
Ann Klefstad was the initial editor of mnartists.org; she's now the arts and entertainment writer for the Duluth News Tribune. She also writes about art for The Rake and Sculpture magazines, among others. She lives on the North Shore.