by Ann McCoy
The American Academy of Arts and Letters | May 24 – June 17, 2018
Joan Waltemath’s stunning painting M’s Crossing (1,2,3,5,8 west) (2015 – 17) is political art at its best. Today, a lot of political art feels mired on a flat positivist plane; stuck in a historical materialism where all theories have an economic foundation determined by external factors—racial, colonial, geographic, etc. Critical theoretical approaches to art are often based on the assumption that the spiritual dimension can be removed from the equation. Waltemath’s work is political insofar as it is a meditation on historical events, and how the white man’s genocidal manifest destiny destroyed indigenous cultures. Yet her explorations of the tragic clash of two cultures, and how a flawed European worldview led to the destruction of an indigenous people, draw from deeper experiential wells, the artist takes us across a bridge to a world of Native American rituals that predate history and into another realm few access today.
Waltemath has been a twelve-year participant in traditional Sun Dance ceremonies with Lakota, Omaha, Diné, and Ponca people, and these experiences give her work an authenticity, a numinosity, and aura that defies literary discourse. Her paintings are made in between ceremonies and around the culture of the sweat lodge, a traditional purification ceremony. The artist strives to elucidate how the ground we walk on determines both our point of view and perception in the world. The ceremonials are part of a participation mystique, and the artist is an actual participant. Without real transformative experiences, it is impossible for an artist to make paintings with a transformational effect. Waltemath stitches together not only her canvases, but also geometric abstraction with mark making, and they become a field for a dialogue between realities. The fifteen foot dimension of the work is taken from the size of a teepee, and is a reminder of the sheltering structures of a decimated civilization. As a descendant and a beneficiary of a landed German settler family, she revisits this territory to not only bear responsibility for this historical outcome, but to also make a peace offering of great artistic value in a troubled world. As Frank Waters says in speaking of John G. Neihardt’s epic vision, “It must include not only the tragic decimation of all the Indian tribes, but also the disastrous effect upon us, their white conquerors.”
The intangible mystery of this work transports this viewer to an archaic place in consciousness when nature and mankind were inseparably fused in peaceful coexistence and respect. This critic was reminded of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)—like the drawing at Chauvet, the petroglyphs on the surface of her painting are messages from this archaic strata. Consciousness is like stratigraphy, where all layers old and new, still exist simultaneously. Waltemath, like the philosopher Jean Gebser, and filmmaker Werner Herzog, is telling us that a visit to this archaic plane may be our salvation. As we confront an apocalyptic ecological situation fueled by scientific monstrosities like Fukushima, rituals like the Sun Dance have a renewed resonance. America now has no profound rituals like the ancient Eleusinian mysteries to link us to agricultural and spiritual renewal. The artist worked hard to establish relationships with these tribes, and is one of the few white participants to enter into this world. Waltemath celebrates the power these rituals hold to connect art to occluded histories with her series Treaty of 1868: A Lament.
M’s Crossing, a stunning work made of sewn rectangles of natural and black canvas, painted with oil, lead white, marble dust, hematite, copper, iron oxide, aluminum, interference, florescent, mica, and phosphorescent pigment, is part of a series of eight large paintings titled the Treaty of 1868: A Lament. The work sets up a dialogue between the pioneer history of the artist’s settler family and the indigenous Planes Indians, and traverses back along the timeline aided by the artist’s participation in Native American rituals. The work is a way of coming to terms with a tragic history of settler theft through broken treaties. As Waltemath says, “One day, after reading a Lakota woman’s historical account of the Plains Indian Wars I connected the dots and recognized that my German ancestors had settled on Treaty of 1868 land.”
The Lakota Sioux sometimes refer to the Sun Dance ceremony as “dancing with the ancestors.” For some indigenous and aboriginal peoples the membrane between the realms of the living and the dead can be passed through in visions, altered states, and during sacred rituals. The dancers in the Native American Sun Dances enter the circular arbor around a central cottonwood tree, where after several days they are joined by the spirits of their ancestors. Waltemath also summons her ancestors, as their representative, to bridge and heal this sad history. For it is by participating in the transformative rituals of another culture, that we can sometimes sense what we are lacking in our own.
ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and frequent contributor to The Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design.