Minnesota Rep. Josh Heintzeman doesn’t often criticize art on his Facebook page. But last week, the Republican from Nisswa went off on a painting currently on display in the Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis.
The piece in question is called Standing Rock 2016. It’s about 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide, according to a report by MPR, and its size and bright color palette give it a lambent, twilit glow from a distance. A metal pipeline disappears under a glowing river and emerges from the mouth of a beast. Attack dogs with two heads rush at a small crowd of protesters, as fat cats in suits smoke cigars and look on. Brightly colored frogs emerge from the river as if to come to its defense, lashing out with their tongues.
And, in the bottom right hand corner, a clearly depicted President Donald Trump gropes the breast of a blindfolded Lady Justice, all the while grabbing at her crotch. This was the part of the painting Heintzeman disliked the most.
“There's a number of very controversial depictions but President Trump's is especially offencive [sic],” he wrote on Facebook last week. He pointed out that the painting (and others in a series) was funded by the Minnesota State Arts Board with a $10,000 grant.
“If ‘artists’ create this kind of thing on their own time fine,” he wrote, “but not on my dime.”
The artist, Jim Denomie, did indeed receive $10,000 for Standing Rock 2016 and its companion pieces in the series. The goal was to represent the months-long protests at Standing Rock “and other contemporary events” from a “Native American perspective.”
The glowing river in the painting is the Missouri River, which is the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s main water source. The pipeline is the embattled Dakota Access Pipeline, which protesters worried could pollute the river as it burrowed underneath it. The fat cats are the profiteers from oil money, the two-headed attack dogs sent to subdue those who stood in solidarity with the tribe. And Trump, groping at Lady Justice, is acting out his own words as recorded on the now infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape: “Grab 'em by the pussy.”
Denomie himself is Anishinaabe, born on the Lac Courte Oreille reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin. You can find his dreamlike paintings on display in the Denver Art Museum, the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Museum of Art, and the Eitlejorg Museum in Indianapolis. He’s a “storyteller,” art curator Robert Cozzolino told MPR last week, and he’s “doing some of the most amazing narrative paintings that anybody’s doing in the United States right now.”
Heintzeman didn’t seem impressed (he didn’t respond to interview requests). Nor did many of his Facebook followers, who criticized the piece as a waste of public funds or “disgusting” or “inappropriate for young viewers.” (Nobody, as an article from Bluestem Prairie pointed out, asked whether it was kid-appropriate for Trump to say “Grab ‘em by the pussy” in the first place.)
But as it happened, another legislator jumped in on the Facebook debate: Minnesota Sen. Carrie Ruud, who is a fellow Republican from Breezy Point.
“This project met all specifications set forth by the constitution and the Arts Board,” she wrote in a comment on Heintzeman’s post. She asked if they should only be creating art featuring events they agreed with or “like[d]”; if “the Holocaust or WWII or war or Native American conflicts” should never be featured lest they offend. A lot of art in the Capitol, she said, is “rated X” for nudity anyway.
“With all due respect, this isn’t about censorship,” Heintzeman commented back. “This is about Minnesota taxpayer money, $10,000, being used for a repulsive depiction of our President.”
“Art or not,” Ruud commented later, “It is free speech.”
You can see Standing Rock 2016 in person at the Bockley Gallery through April 6. Denomie will be there to give an artist’s talk on March 7.