An Interview with Artist George Longfish

An Interview with Artist George Longfish

NEW YORK – The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)
will showcase an exhibition of Seneca/Tuscarora artist George Longfish as
part of the museum’s ongoing Continuum: 12 Artists series. The series
presents living Native American artists who have continued the concepts of
George Morrison (1919 – 2000) and Allan Houser (1914 – 1994) both of whom
were pioneers in contemporary Native art. The artists in Continuum employ
contemporary art techniques to address current aesthetic, cultural, social
and political issues.

Longfish was born in Canada and went to school in New York and Chicago
before going on to study painting, sculpture, and film at the School of the
Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC,) where he received his MFA in 1972. He
recently retired as a professor of Native American studies at the
University of California at Davis, where he taught historical and
contemporary Native art courses and workshops for three decades. He was the
director of the C.N. Gorman Museum while at Davis.

When Longfish was a teenager he wanted to be a Disney artist, but in high
school he met a student from the Art Institute of Chicago who introduced
him to abstract art. “It was a new thing that I had never been exposed to
it,” Longfish told Indian Country Today.

“When I look back and reflect on it, it just felt like home. It was where I
belonged. At that time, around 1960, I probably wasn’t even aware that
there was Native American art. I always liked art, but I had a limited
concept of it, so when modern art came along it opened up new doors to
different things, and it was exciting.”

Longfish came of age when Jackson Pollack’s abstract expressionism was
transforming into pop, via the works of Jasper Johns and Robert
Rauschenberg. Much of Longfish’s work from the period was in minimalist and
hard line art; canvases of lines, or numbers. “When I started painting I
was doing things that were totally abstract with a lot of color,” Longfish
said. “I probably didn’t hear about the I.A.I.A. (Institute of American
Indian Arts, Santa Fe) until I already had my first teaching job. One of my
students told me about it, and I finally got to see what Native American
art was. It was interesting, but I pretty much liked what I was doing in
the American/European tradition. When I was in Montana the nearest
reservation was 17 miles away, and I got to know the Native people. That’s
when I became more aware of the problems that effected Native people at
that time, and that’s when I started to use my art as more of an
expression. I was looking at what was being done, and the issues helped me;
they were dictating what my art was going to be.”

When he first started showing, much like Howe and Morrison, there was a lot
of discussion as to whether Longfish was a Native artist, or an artist who
happened to be Native. Longfish said that he’s an artist who uses his
heritage to inform his art. However, coming out of the Modern art
tradition, he has a biting commentary in his work that barely existed in
Native art at the time. “In the 1970s people liked my work, but they didn’t
know what to do with it. I did one piece called ‘America’s Beginning to
Piss on the Indians.’ It was about Manhattan Island, which was sold for $24
worth of beads. I took a drawing of Manhattan Island, which looks like a
penis, and I had twenty-four rolled up dollar bills that I peyote stitched
onto the painting. People didn’t know how to take that,” he laughed. The
painting was destroyed not in protest, but because vandals wanted the $24.

The centerpiece in the NMAI show is “The End of Innocence,” which Longfish
painted in 1992 for a show that dealt with the Native perspective on the
500-year anniversary of Columbus coming to America. The image is of a
warrior against an abstract background with phrases like “Cut Rate
Cigarettes;” “Bingo;” and “Blackfeet Pencil Co.” stenciled on it. The
issues in the painting are the same issues discussed in the Native
community today, 12 years later. “That was an important painting for me
because it’s more of my mature style of painting. It’s a combination of
using the beginnings of abstract expressionism, the uses of drawings and
photographic studies of Indians, and the beginning of text in my paintings.
I’ve taken a lot of heat for that painting, the label that came out was
that I was a revisionist, that I was changing the concept and rewriting
history, and giving a more truthful perspective. People didn’t like that.”

Another large canvas is “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?” which features
five warriors with the word heaven (printed backwards and upside-down) at
the top of the painting, above the phrase “Freedom of Religion.” The
warriors are labeled death, decay, gestation, germination, and rebirth.
Other texts in the work include “How ’bout getting off of these
antibiotics?” “Ghost Dance Wounded Knee” and “No Skateboarding.” The
painting is a powerful statement on how Native religion was banned in the
U.S. “The idea was that the historically, the Indians have lost their sense
of direction on a spiritual level. What you are seeing in the painting are
the five figures, which relate to the concept of life, death, rebirth, and
if you look above them, it says ‘Freedom of Religion.’ That’s what the
country was built on, and now we have the Indians who are trying to reclaim
their own religion. Above it shows the concept that there are no Indians
allowed in heaven.” When asked about the “No Skateboarding” sign, Longfish
added, “I know these issues, I make them large, but you also need some
humor with them.”

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