Friday, February 5, 2010

Ted DeGrazia's Gallery in the Sun

So my experiences with the Heard Museum and thinking about Indian issues came a day after visiting a place in Tucson called the Gallery in the Sun, devoted to the work of a local artist named Ted DeGrazia.

That's the wrong way to put it: it makes it sound like somebody established a gallery to showcase DeGrazia's work. DeGrazia established the gallery himself, to showcase his work. The Art World Elites (which in this case evidently meant art historians and curators at the University of Arizona) didn't give him any respect and wouldn't show his work, so he decided to show it himself.

This was a point of pride to him and still is to his fans, evidently. And the resulting gallery is definitely something to see - whatever else I may say about him before I'm done, I want to make it clear that it's worth visiting this place. In the way it embodies DeGrazia's originality and (in some ways) cussedness, it expresses something essential to understanding the Southwest. And the buildings themselves are pretty interesting, incorporating local materials and designs ranging from prison doors to adobe walls, rock floors, junk sculpture in the gardens, and a sort of romanticized primitivist mission-style church on the grounds. The church in particular is pretty impressive: sure, it embodies an embarrassingly romanticized view of poor Indian spirituality, but it finds him pursuing his aesthetic with enough tenacity and scale to make you want to classify him as a visionary, an authentic American wacko.

The problem is his art. He's best known for, and his gallery is full of, Indian kitsch – adorable, utterly infantalized paintings of Indian children, either with no faces at all or nothing but big black eyes and teeny-tiny mouths. At best his work is picture-book quality, with a certain naïve charm, a kind of Madeline-like joy in color and motion. Very midcentury, and it's not hard to see why DeGrazia was given his greatest recognition, having one of his paintings turned into a UNICEF greeting card in 1960.

But the charm wears off pretty quickly once you start to think about those faces. Not just the faces, but they're emblematic of how his art totally erases the individuality of his subjects, and therefore their humanity. They're objectified in the most all-encompassing way imaginable - they're decorative, nothing but harmless and colorful urchins. His paintings are filled with an immense positive feeling toward his subjects - he loves these wide-eyes mouthless Indian children - but also a colossal cluelessness about how offensive it is to reduce the rightful proprietors of this land to mute ornament.

The kicker, for me, is the museum's boast that DeGrazia had not only studied at UA, but had worked in Mexico City with Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. So he's not a "visionary" (okay, I'll stop using that term, since I don't even like it), not even really an outsider. In fact, I'd argue that he was an insider, or about the closest you could get to being one in midcentury Arizona: somebody with access to the institutions of high culture, and the opportunity to train with recognized masters. The problem is, he came out of these encounters just as clueless as he went in: to have studied with Rivera and Orozco and still paint native people the way he did speaks of a truly remarkable obtuseness.

I'm glad I went.

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