A (part) Native American, Fritz Scholder built up a body of work that deconstructed the popular notion of what it meant to be one in modern America. Using post-modern stylings with a pop-art bent, Scholder interrogated the mythos surrounding his subjects to challenge contemporary perspectives.
Through a lifelong exposure to art, both of his native people and the country of America at large, Scholder was able to pick up popular motifs from both. If it was an indian riding on horseback, the colour scheme would provide some decontextualisation that whisked the mysterious muse away and into another place.
It's not that Scholder straddled the two lives, as much as lived wholly in his own space, never being entirely one or the other. He's what you could safely call a 'necessary' artist. Necessary because he was able to leave the artistic conversation in a different state to when he joined it.
Tackling misinformation, cliché and the prejudice raised by the attitudes that led to them, Scholder wielded his paintings like some kind of distorted mirror for American society to look back at itself whilst highlighting their hypocrisy and ill-informed views through a humorous and very likeable lens.
Looking at the whole body of Scholders life's work, it becomes clear that he was a documentarian of the transition and assimilation of Native American culture - from being very culturally idiosyncratic through to being a part of American popular society. Using beer cans, flags and guns - all potent symbols of American life - in absurd or unexpected ways, the language of his bold and expressionistic works were often tragi-comic.
Satirical in their ability to question regularities of the everyman and every day life for both Native Indians and the general American population, there is something deeply poignant and even disturbing about seeing a Native figure, outfitted in traditional garb, yet holding a rifle and draped in the Stars and Stripes. Highlighting the evident colonial aspect that underpins the fractured relationship between the two groups who both call the same piece of land home, Scholder refrained from pointing fingers, picking his battles wisely.
That's not to say controversy flew by him though. He just went to battle with both sides, without entirely isolating either. One-quarter Luiseño, Scholder wasn't actually full Indian. In fact, by his own admission, one-quarter of something doesn't really mean anything at all. It was a persona that he embraced. He fought a battle that wasn't really actually ever his in the first place and because of that, took a lot of flack.
Still, he fought the battle with good intention. Initially vowing never to paint Native Indians, he saw that the cities around him were filled with Native imagery, where tourism brought a lot of profit off their backs, but that this money wasn't funnelling back to the people it depicted - Scholder felt that it was exploitation. Although the two worlds worked together in a capitalist system, where one provided allure and a market to feed the other - in practice, he was unable to find such glorious union. This initially provoked his choice of subject.
Images of the Indian being sold at that time was the one associated with the Old West, where their lifestyle was more primal and underdeveloped compared to mainstream American society. Scholder eschewed falling into that trap, actively combatting the ideal by showing contemporary Indians - still holding onto their culture and heritage, yes, but also driving cars or sitting at a bar.
Although a long time has passed and the relationship between Native Indians and American has ebbed and flowed, little evident change has ushered in harmony or reconciliation. Scholder, by painting in a style so far removed from traditional Indian styles and with subjects removed from contemporary American life, his own road was never going to be smooth either. Then again, it was adventurous and at the end, it was undeniably influential to those who came after.
In essence, Scholder was an unapologetic realist who didn't much care who liked what he painted, or who didn't. That's lucky, because neither party - the American's buying it or the Indian's in it, warmed to it unequivocally. Still, his charisma kept people coming back and posthumously, his plaudits have continued to mount. He was no doubt challenging, but through his questions we can begin to get answers.
How far had America come at the time of his paintings from the fractured relationship they're built on? How far has it come since then? It might not be the way American's wanted to see themselves, nor Native Indians, but that hard truth - the bitterest pill to swallow - is a proven cure for the denial evident in both groups. If you want to bury your head in the sand, it's a hopeless endeavour around Scholder, who always seems ready and waiting to pull it back out and make you look down the barrel of a gun. He won't make you pick a side, but you might just end up doing so regardless.
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