Arts

The Pueblo Artist Who Brings Kink to Traditional Craft

Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo), “Master and Tics” (2002), Cochiti red clay, white clay slip, red clay slip, black (wild spinach) paint, 27 x 15 x 12 inches (courtesy Robert Gallegos, image courtesy the museum)

SANTA FE, N. Mex. — ReVOlution, an exhibition at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, featuring work by multimedia artist Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo), the museum’s 2022 “Living Treasure,” resides peculiarly in the museum’s lobby, in front of the admissions desk and in view of the gift shop. One walks by the four ceramic pieces and two photographic works that comprise the show in order to obtain a ticket to the museum. I assumed the lobby installation was the invitation to more Ortiz, but as the museum attendant put it, “This is it.” Perhaps there is something about the assumed scale of “living treasure” that set a different expectation in mind. More likely, my anticipation was set by Ortiz’s work itself, which is arresting in memory, vivid in scale and content, and thoroughly original and inherited — a pairing not at odds but mutually binding in his art.

Ortiz’s mother, Seferina Herrera, and grandmother, Laurencita Herrera, were both prolific potters who carried Cochiti traditions forward, making vessels from their land’s clay, painted with black designs from harvested wild spinach — techniques that Ortiz has always used himself. He made his first clay figure when he was six, a storyteller in the style of his grandmother’s and mother’s designs, featuring a woman wearing a suit with a bow tie. Gender play, kink, and futures that touch traditional lifeways are enduring features of Ortiz’s work.

Ceramic vessels and figures that employ satire, parody, and social and political commentary are characteristics of Cochiti works, and two of the ceramic pieces in ReVOlution realize these discursive forms. “Rise Up” (2017) takes the form of a traditional storage jar, its exterior painted with a contemporary scene of women’s fists rising above oil derricks, and Trump riding a Black Snake — the prophetic symbol of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The jar tells a story as the viewer moves around it, or attempts to do so.

Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo), “Rise Up” (2017), Cochiti red clay, white clay slip, red clay slip, black (wild spinach) paint, 19 x 15 x 15 inches (photo Nancy Zastudil/Hyperallergic)

Three of the vessels featured in the show, along with one canteen by Ortiz in MIAC’s permanent exhibition, Here, Now and Always, are in glass cases with one side obstructed. In the lobby, two of the cases are positioned against walls, so I had to crane and contort myself between the case and the wall to see the full image. But Trump rides the snake; he sneers with fists full of dollars, and wears a long red tie that curls like a snake’s tongue. 

As the viewer moves around the jar, Trump is now suspended by his sport coat, held between a woman’s thumb and index finger, a gesture that looks like she’s disposing of something rotten. His tie is shorter, and his suit appears to have shrunk in the water. His mouth suggests he’s yelling. Move again, and Trump is rendered more ghastly: His mouth is sewn shut, the snake slithers in and out of his head, through a cheek, a temple, and out an eye to rest in striking position on top of Trump’s head, which now features only a few strands of hair. Trump holds his right hand with index finger up, as if saying “one” or maybe “wait, I still have a point to make.” His buttons burst at the seams to reveal the signature red tie, but his pants are now adorned with vertical white stripes. With hair, eyes, and pants, he resembles Beetlejuice. Oil derricks in the background appear to sit on either shoulder. 

“Master and Tics” (2020) includes Monos figures, reminiscent of those created by Cochiti potters from about 1880–1920 to represent and comment on an influx of outsiders to the pueblo, brought by train. The Monos, which means “to mimic,” staged parodic figures in motion, performing, commanding attention — Spanish, New Mexican, or Euro-American circus performers, land thieves, and priests. Potters sold their Monos figures to the very outsiders they mocked, and once the audience realized they were both the target of parody and the market to consume it, Monos disappeared from circulation.

Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo), “Blind Archer” (2019), Cochiti red clay, white clay slip, red clay slip, black (wild spinach) paint (courtesy Daniel Crane, image courtesy the museum)

Ortiz studied these figures in museums and private collections, and learned of their refinement and detail. He recreates them with signature differences; his figures wear black boots instead of brown shoes. “Master and Tics” features leather cuffs around the wrists of the ring master, and the necks of his animals, each cuff adorned with a silver plate. The ring master’s pants are also black-and-white striped, a potential double of Trump’s pants in “Rise Up,” and a reminder that each reverberates with Cochiti traditions in form and content. As Ortiz describes in a beautiful, recently-published book, a mid-career retrospective with prefatory material by his longtime gallerist Charles King, “Our art from the late 1880s told the stories of what those people were experiencing at that time.” […] I want to demonstrate that Native artists can innovate while using traditional methods. […] It’s time to give the voice back to clay.”

The clay speaks stories too — old, ongoing, future, and the blur of these temporal distinctions that my language has imposed. With “Blind Archers” (2019) and “Venutian Soldier Quest” (2020), the final two ceramic pieces in the show, Ortiz grafts figures to vessels, a technique that demonstrates his remarkable co-innovations with clay. They also comprise stories from Ortiz’s elaborate worlding that enfolds the 1680 Pueblo Revolt with an imagined 2180 into a chiasmus of resistance, resilience, shifting and innovating forms — all eternal characteristics of Pueblo people and lands. The Blind Archers figured in the pot along with Tahu, who is projected into a large-scale photographic banner, “Face Off: Tahu and Castilian 2180” (2015), orient the viewer to some of Ortiz’s main characters. Tahu, a Keres term of respect for elder Pueblo women, was blinded by a conquistador during an archery contest. She becomes the leader of the Blind Archers in Ortiz’s enduring Pueblo Revolt. 

Ortiz calls the 1680 uprising the “first American revolution,” and he uses various media, from clay and glass to film and fashion, to teach these histories and to help Pueblos imagine and set into motion such revolutionary futures. His work is cited for its blending of times, and thus frequently classified in the genre of Indigenous futurisms. I wouldn’t contest these designations. But his repertoire may also call to its audience in unexpected ways. 

Installation view of ReVOlution at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (2022-23), Santa Fe (photo Nancy Zastudil/Hyperallergic)

I may not have paid enough attention to the other exhibitions had I not been startled by the scale and placement of ReVOlution. But with Ortiz’s work in mind, I encountered fragments of a Spanish mission bell destroyed and apprehended during the Pueblo Revolt from Ogha Pogeh (Santa Fe) in Here, Now and Always. Such an object would have otherwise represented, to this viewer, Catholic colonization; after spending time with Ortiz’s vessels and characters, I stood in front of it at another angle to see the power of Pueblo resistance so resonant in the bell’s broken, fragmented internment. 

In Grounded in Clay, I watched videos of contemporary Pueblo potters interact with ancestral pots currently archived in the collections of the School for Advanced Research. I was struck by the quiet moments, as these artists moved their hands on the pot’s body, often halting on a repaired line, running their finger over and over the same spot. Something was happening, a communication in the haptic encounter that isn’t for me to know precisely, but witnessing the motion was enough. In this sense, ReVOlution functioned as a corridor or opening to learning about the other artists and times, to really seeing these works, some of which were made by Ortiz’s relatives. Perhaps this is just the reading I need to impose — to turn a lobby exhibition into the metaphor of a corridor, a space of transition into another way of seeing and learning. But Ortiz is a committed teacher to those willing to listen. 

Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo), “Venutian Soldiers Quest” (2020), Cochiti red clay, white and red clay slip, black (wild spinach) paint, 23.5 x 13 x 12 inches (courtesy Daniel Crane, image courtesy the museum)
Installation view of ReVOlution (2022-23) at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (2022-23), Santa Fe (photo Nancy Zastudil/Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ReVOlution at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (2022-23), Santa Fe (photo Nancy Zastudil/Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ReVOlution at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (2022-23), Santa Fe; “Face Off: Tahu and Castilian 2180” (2015) (photo Nancy Zastudil/Hyperallergic)

ReVOlution continues at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture (710 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through April 1, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Lillia McEnaney.

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