Review: Shifting Grounds

The following review was featured in the Fall 2019 issue of News from Native California:

The 19th Century is thought of as the golden age of American landscape painting. Moving beyond mere artful documentation of place and setting, landscape art became an idea, a propaganda of sorts that spurred settlers West. But, as with many aspects of American history, the settler-colonial perspective rarely paints a full picture. In Shifting Grounds: Landscape in Contemporary Native American Art,  art historian Kate Morris illuminates how Indigenous artists are expanding and re-conceptualizing the subdiscipline to evoke a more “embedded subjectivity” as an alternative to  the popularized distant, single-point perspective.

Morris, a professor of art history and the associate dean of arts and sciences at Santa Clara University, explores the view of contemporary Indigenous art as “a vehicle for the expression of place-based knowledge.” This translates into both written and visual discourses of the various physical and creative approaches used by featured Indigenous artists to subvert mainstream expectations of what landscape imagery should be.

Visually, the book has a sleek, yet vibrant layout, which is apt in that books about art should be designed with an artful awareness. The first three chapters discuss painting as a medium and feature the paintings of Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee) and Jay Lavadour (Walla Walla). The remaining two chapters cover the expanding world of landscape representation through installations (site-specific works usually designed to alter the perception of a space), video, and performance art. Featured works in these mediums include the installations of Alan Michaelson (Mohawk), James Luna (Luiseño), and Kent Monkman (Fish River Band Cree) as well as the mixed media sculpture and performance art of Rebecca Belmore (Anishinaabe).

All of the works displayed explore themes of representation, generational trauma, and resilience, but none feel static in any sense of the word. Even in the more abstract pieces, there is perpetual movement, as if all involved—artist, landscape, and viewer—are in a constant, connected state of transition.  A great example can be found in the Luna’s Creation and Destruction of an Indian Reservation: An American Dilemma (1990) in which Luna dramatizes over the course of four acts the various stages of reservation system development. Not only does the piece serve to highlight the historical division and fencing off of reservation land to the detriment of Indigenous peoples, but it also conveys “anti-invitational aspects.” Morris writes in Chapter Four, Centering, “The presence of the fencing in Luna’s installation contradicts the official language of the highway sign behind it that reads ‘Entering  La Jolla Reservation.’”

Morris’ language is accessible, yet academic, which, depending upon reader proclivities, may enhance or be a barrier to engagement. Given the in-depth analysis of complex and layered works, however, the style choice seems justified. For example, Morris’ discussion of Lavador’s 2013 piece Tiicham, a 102 x 152 inch rectangle comprised of 15 panels, not only provides general art criticism, but also draws from several expert sources to consider Native and non-native views before providing her own analysis.

Covering works created within the last thirty years by Indigenous artists of North America, Shifting Grounds provides a more inclusive perspective into what landscape art was, is, and does.