From left to right: Memories of a Strawberry Thanksgiving
Scorched Earth Policy
Mountain Men and Indians: A Hot and Prickly History 2009
16mm film, leader, rayon cord & thread Individual dimensions: 9" x 9" x 7," 10" x 7" x 7," 10" x 7" x 7"
Photo: Bill Bacchuber, courtesy of Froelick Gallery
Just as flash frames are reputed to impart subliminal messages when inserted into films, so the celluloid-based basket sculptures of Gail Tremblay hold content hidden from immediate perception. Make no mistake, the works offer the eye plenty to perceive. With their jewel and candy colorsólemon, turquoise, garnet, and peridotócontrasting against luminous black, they look like elaborately wrapped presentation boxes, crowns, or juliet caps. They resplend with a sense of the decorative, perhaps even the functional, yet underlying this curb appeal is a serious critique of cinema’s often condescending portrayal of Native Americans.
The artist, who lives in Olympia, Washington, is a member of the Onondaga and Micmac Nations. As a personal and aesthetic response to more than a century of largely insensitive depictions of Native Americans in film, she undertook the current body of work as an act of reclamation through repurposing. She collected spools upon spools of discarded 35mm and 16mm film, predominantly from libraries in the process of converting film stock into digital media. Reinterpreting traditional strawberry, porcupine, and ribbon stitches, she wove the film into basket forms, manually “editing” the film by splicing images against other related or incongruous images. The most dramatic visual effects come courtesy multi-colored leader tape, some of which (red and pale yellow most obviously) correspond to epithets for Native Americans and Caucasians. Some, but not all, of the film clips used pertain directly to the series’ larger subject matter, but the works’ titles give clues to their subtexts: The Red Starlet Dressed in Green and Blue; And Then There is the Hollywood Indian Princess; Mountain Men and Indians: A Hot and Prickly History; and Scorched Earth Policy. The artist extends her focus to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the formidably titled An Iroquois Dreams that the Tribes of the Middle East Will Take the Message of Deganawida to Heart and Make Peace.
In the tradition of the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and reclaimed hate words such as “queer,” Tremblay recontextualizes Native identity by acknowledging, indeed glamorizing, negative imagery and nomenclature from the past. That she manages to do so with such finesseóconfronting not only this difficult subject matter but also the perennial divides between art and craft, conceptual and formalistóis a testament to the nuance of these visually bracing, socio-politically potent works.