His is an overt pain, the pain of life in a wheelchair, unable to have a wife, a home, and children. For those of us who have those things, part of the pain is the fear of losing the ability to have those things, knowing that, like Ernie Pepion, who lost that ability in a millisecond, so could we. …
Woody Kipp wrote those words about the work of the artist Ernie Pepion a while ago, certainly before Sept. 11. But what can be lost in a millisecond is on our minds now, as well as who might lose it. Ernie Pepion is a Blackfeet artist who grew up on the Blackfeet Indian reservation. He is a Vietnam veteran, and he is disabled—not from the war, but from a car wreck soon after he returned. About his work he writes: “In my life I have experienced discrimination, first as an Indian growing up near a reservation border-town while attending a predominantly non-Indian school, and later as a quadriplegic. I’ve been belittled and pitied. I have seen that some people, in ignorance, behave as though they are superior to those who are not of their race or who are disabled. Through painting I show my experience of these degradations.”
You might think that if you walk into this exhibit not an Indian, not a vet, and not disabled, you will feel on guard—as if you are walking through a minefield of discriminatory possibilities. Don’t worry about it. Ernie Pepion’s work seems to either transcend politics or deepen it. The paintings truly are as curator Steve Glueckert describes them: “There is a terrible beauty in these works. ... This exhibition is a lamentation, a crying out, a wailing that is an inescapable expression of not only the artist’s grief, but everyone’s. The paintings tell a truth that only art is capable of uttering.”
Those of us who are non-painters of course try to utter it anyway, failing. Here’s a stab at a truth: Ernie Pepion’s Red Man exhibit inspires an understanding of how Vietnam and its aftermath, or the life near reservation border-towns, or confinement to a wheelchair, could feel, in each case, like a long, slow Sept. 11.
The paintings are startling. For one thing, the Red Man is very, very red—almost poppy red, or the red of fresh blood. It’s like full-body paint, a kind of mask of redness—not reality, but not representational either (as braids might be, or eagle feathers, or other icons of Indianness). The color is like a powerful totem, but there’s an aspect of physical woundedness, too, even gore.
The face and head that goes with this recurring red body has an oddly conventional look to it. Whose convention? The hair is neatly clipped and parted, short. Except for a couple of exceptions, the face seems purposefully flat, expressionless except for the eyes, which always focus off-canvas with a searing gaze.
The exceptions to the stony, betray-no-feeling expressions of these Red Man mouths are placed close to each other in the exhibit. One is called “Never-Ending Battle.” It shows a red body—naked like they all are in this exhibit—with exact attention paid to the bones protruding through slack muscle, the round belly, and the deadened feet, crossed like sticks. This Red Man holds an artist’s palette, the classic oval design, bright splotches of color, “Pepion” scrawled flamboyantly across it. His other hand holds a paintbrush and it is raised, as if it’s a stick and the palette is a drum. The man’s mouth is open and his constrained gaze is cast upward. He could very well be singing, we don’t know. He could be singing a war song or a lament. He is staked to the ground—one thin, contorted ankle is wrapped round with rawhide and he is picketed to a small peg, and you have a sick feeling in looking at this that some human, somewhere on the face on the earth, is, in just this way, held in place.
Next to it is “Hog-Tied,” an even more explicit image of bondage. One arm and two legs are tied up, like a calf at a rodeo, and this Red Man’s haunches are like an animal’s, his mouth is open in an animal-like way, to wail or growl. But, as in many of these paintings, there is still that circumspection, that portrayal of uneasiness with letting the pain escape into feeling. That is what makes it so hard to look directly at them when the pain is, in fact, so exposed.
There are dream paintings—a young, flat-stomached horseman, smiling, and an old artist, peaceful in death. In other of Pepion’s work, humor is evident (a l991 painting called “Bustin’ Loose”—not in this exhibit—shows a clothed man in a wheelchair with a child’s hobby horse between his legs, breaking through barb wire, a somewhat “can do” look on his face). But the Red Man Series—with so many of these figures in stiff, horizontal poses of flat-out paralysis—shows a stripped-down, bare-bones suffering that feels so detailed and specific and so ... red ... that it flips over, I don’t know how, into something universal.