“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.
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 email@example.com or call 406-728-0447.