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Chris Pappan’s Ghost Images turns 19th century ideas into images of resistance at MAM

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Artist Chris Pappan grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, raised on Heavy Metal Magazine and Zap Comix (thanks to his countercultural parents) and metal bands including Metallica and Gojira. After high school, while studying at Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts, he began to investigate his ancestry—a mix of Kaw, Osage, Cheyenne River Sioux and European—and he continued that investigation while studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As many as 30,000 members of 150 tribes live in the greater Chicago area—the result of a 1950s-era federal program that relocated American Indians from reservations to urban centers. That rich cultural history and Pappan’s personal interest in underground art sparked some of the ideas that his artwork still centers on today.

“I started to get more in touch with that side of myself when I was in Santa Fe,” he says, “and then when I moved to Chicago, I started to think about who I was and where my people come from.”

Chris Pappan's "Mind the Gap" is made with pencil, graphite, map collage, inkjet and acrylic on a 1906 ledger book.
  • Chris Pappan's "Mind the Gap" is made with pencil, graphite, map collage, inkjet and acrylic on a 1906 ledger book.
Pappan’s drawings riff on 19th century photographs of American Indians, but they have an edge to them, nothing so overtly sci-fi and flashy as a Heavy Metal cover, but with enough of a comic and pop-art tone that they wouldn’t seem out of place on the walls of an anarchist bookstore. They’re also elegant, so they’re not out of place at a museum, either. His new exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum, Ghost Images, uses the Native American tradition of ledger art and revamps it to prod misconceptions and stereotypes about Native Americans—the unflappably stoic Indian, for example—that took root in the 19th century. Pappan’s work is a striking example of what it means to embrace tradition and, simultaneously, resist it.

Ledger art was popular from the 1860s through the 1920s. Before that, Native Americans used buffalo hides as canvases for depicting hunting and personal feats in battle. When the U.S. government nearly eradicated bison, tribes turned to new drawing media, including ledger books, which they obtained while interacting with traders, government agents, missionaries and military officers. Pappan’s introduction to ledger art arrived when he worked as an art handler at a Chicago gallery and came across an unused accounting book. He sometimes used maps, too, and then moved to illustrating his own, since vintage maps were hard to come by and too valuable to use as canvas.

A few years ago, Pappan traveled to Council Groves, Kansas, which is where the Kaw (also known as Kanza) people first lived before they were moved to their present-day reservation in Oklahoma. (Some old maps still show Kansas written as “Kanzas,” after the tribe.)

“I had only seen pictures of it,” Pappan says. “It was cool, because the Kanza people had purchased land back from the state, and so they had a dance arbor built—a permanent structure. I was there when they dedicated it and had the first ceremony for it. And that was really special.”

That melding of past and present, of trying to go back to where he came from and also move forward is present in Pappan’s art. He provides that tone by taking familiar-seeming portraiture and messing with it. In one of the pieces from Ghost Images, “Divided,” two figures stand face to face like mirror images, giving the viewer a sense of double vision. But staring at the faces for a few seconds you can see that they’re not quite the same. Pappan’s distortion of their features has become a familiar aspect of his work, though the first time he did it was by accident.

“It’s one of those things artists call happy accidents, that’s how a lot of ideas are born,” he says. “It was one of those, and then it has grown into this whole metaphor for how we perceive ourselves and how we project ourselves, how we divide ourselves and how we unify ourselves, and the things that grow out of those actions.”

His life in Arizona as a kid listening to metal and reading comics combined with his path to being a Chicago-based artist has given him a broad view of the world that doesn’t fit into antiquated stereotypes of indigenous life.

“I definitely do try to resist the stereotypical imagery in different ways,” he says. But from all stereotypes there is a kernel of truth in there, and so some of the images I do find are stereotypical, so the challenge for me then is, how do I change that stereotype? How do I provide a narrative within the stereotypical framework about who we are now?”

The Missoula Art Museum presents an opening reception for Chris Pappan’s Ghost Images Fri., Aug. 4, from 5 PM to 8 PM, and an artist talk at 7 PM. Free. On Sat., Aug. 5, join Pappan at MAM for brunch and discussion. $10/$5 members. Space is limited. RSVP by Aug. 3. Email cassidy@missoulaartmuseum.org or call 406-728-0447.

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