Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bob Haozous: Indian Individual (1981)

Lady in Love III, alabaster, 70 inches long

            Using saws, chisels and grinders, Bob Haozous creates sensuous stone, metal and wood forms that combine pointed social commentary with an abiding concern for beauty and grace. Haozous shares a love of polished, finished surfaces with his famous sculptor father, Allan Houser, but there the father-son similarity ends. While Houser's work is the epitome of lyrical, Native American ideals of beauty, harmony and pride, Haozous is concerned with the experience and the meaning of the contemporary Indian individual, and his sculpture often has a satirical or ironic bite.
            Haozous is articulate and soft-spoken. When he talks, there's a sense about him of restrained intensity and enthusiasm--not that anything's going unsaid, but that words are delivered with a curious lack of passion. Perhaps he saves the passion for his work.
            We talked in his studio, atop a hill a few miles west of Santa Fe.

I just returned from a show in Texas, and these people said, "Why are you doing this kind of work? It's not Indian art!"

What do they think Indian art is?
Decorative. No philosophy, no religion, just an extension of Indian craft. The whole subject kind of burns me up.

Let's ease into it then. What's the source of your art?
In one way or another, I think most of my art is based on my childhood. I was born in Los Angeles, but I grew up in Utah. This was during the '50s, what they called the `termination' period, when the government sent Indian kids away from the reservations to schools, cut off their hair, forbid them to speak their own language. My mother and father both worked at one of those Indian schools, in northern Utah, but I went to a public school, and that was strange. The kids of the Indian employees were separate from the anglos, separate from the Indian kids in the Indian school...but that experience was instrumental in what I'm doing know. It gave me a distance. The people I grew up with, the ones my friends and I respected for their wit, their intelligence, their sensitivity--they either became artists or alcoholics. Some of them are dead now. The others, to survive, totally divorced themselves from their Indian culture.
            As soon as we could, we all left. I'm finding that a number of my old friends are beginning to congregate here in Santa Fe--Gail Bird and Yazzie Johnson, who are jewelers, Robert Shorty, a sculptor, Harold Littlebird, who's a poet and potter, and my brother, Phil Haozous, another jeweler.

Can you be specific about how your early experience has been reflected in your art?
Well, the experience wasn't urban, it wasn't reservation. It was a contemporary setting where we could pretty much make our own rules. I had a generalized Indian awareness, and what I'm doing now is to try and generalize in the statements I make with my work. Rather than express any particular tribe's ways or rules or symbols, I try and express the general Indian awareness.

How do you characterize that awareness?
The non-Indian philosophy is based on the Western tradition of man as being superior to everything else on earth. The Native American says man is an equal part of everything. To the Indian, God couldn't look like man. I'm not a religious man. On the other hand, I feel I have a responsibility to somehow privately form my own religion.

You whitewashed some of your early sculptures. Was that intended as a literal symbol?
Yes. That's the general American idea that if you can't control something, manipulate it, whitewash it, it's not right. So I started painting things white. I did a wood piece once called Initiation, which showed a lady holding a mask. She looked Indian, but you weren't sure, and the mask was painted white. There were these beautiful cracks in the wood and in the woman, and the guy who bought the piece filled them in. He whitewashed the whole thing.

 Did you experience a lot of the whitewash while you were growing up?
I knew people in Utah, Indian people, who joined the Mormon Church. They were taught that if they really believed in the church, their skin would turn white. And those people believed it. That's the power of the dominant culture. I've never made a point of wearing Indian jewelry or clothes, because everyone has tried so hard to look like an Indian. I don't care what people look like. Appearances are so unimportant. When I was in school--California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland--I wanted to go through as a neutral person. People thought I was Italian. Teachers tried to get us to dig into our past, but at that time I was more interested in intellectual and technical stimulus. The one time that I painted an Indian, the teacher gave me an A, and it was the last painting I did.

Has your father had much influence on your work?
He gave us clay when we were kids, critiqued our drawings. But he was aware of the harm that could be caused by pushing us, and he didn't. He looks traditional, but he's very tolerant. I think the most important thing I've learned from my dad.... In his work, everything is intentional. I admire that. It's a professionalism I want, too. I want control. Many people stop working on a piece too soon. They stop when they think the piece is salable, rather than when it's finished. That's why you see so much rough rock in sculpture. They're not finished.

Most of your figures are women.
They always have been. I started doing degraded Mother Earth images. Indians view Mother Earth as the live earth, anglos view her as a woman with big breasts, big hips, a very dominant woman. So I did the anglo attitude. When Indian societies were destroyed, it was the men's roles that were ravaged. In my tribe [Apache], for example, the men were hunters, raiders, and the women took care of the families. When the men lost the ability to do the hunting, there was nothing left. The woman became very dominant--luckily, because they held things together.

But aren't you often sculpting Anglo women?
I decided I would do Indian art that portrays non-Indians. So, yes, I do anglos, I expose them, in a strange way. The men all have a gun, a symbol of a false sense of manhood. Having a gun is like using technology to rule rather than instinct. On the women, I often put necklaces, like the hippies in the '60s wore. They'd put on a necklace and think they were relating to the noble savage. But they didn't relate to who the Indian really was! With my women, I was dealing with the surface decoration to show how all this stuff affects the stone. But the stone, its essence, is still there, underneath, and showing through all that other stuff.

"M," painted wood, 60 inches tall
 You're known for your stone carvings, yet you also have done wood panels like this one [titled M, a frontal female nude, with stars, hearts, and pictograph-like cowboys]--carved in relief and colored--that have the impact of paintings.
I guess I had a lot to say with that one. I wanted to put an anglo, or an anglo-looking woman in a Southwest landscape. She's a friend who...just say she's dissatisfied--with herself, with the landscape, the place. I put her with her soldiers, her ten little white men. She's naked, offering you everything. She's aggressive. The rabbit next to her is timid. He's in the environment. She's a beautiful shell, easily obtained and empty. The hearts--they promise true love, what she thinks she wants. The piece is a hinged triptych, like an altar piece. She stands on top of the hill, blocking the environment, the beauty, offering something very unimportant. She's like the beautiful people who come here, thinking the landscape is so beautiful, and then they put a house on top of the hill and ruin the landscape.

All the images in your work seem to have very particular meanings. What are the chrome balls you've added to some of your stone sculptures?
I did that first in Woman with Necklace. First of all, I like the contrast between marble and chrome. People hated them, so I carved planes and clouds into the surface of her dress. She's till a Navajo woman, but she's controlled by her new environment. No matter where you are, you see planes in the air. The chrome balls are technology, but they are beautiful forms, too.

Sometimes your symbolism is pointed, but your forms are almost always very lush, beautiful. Some of the women, especially, are reminiscent of Lachaise.
I've always admired him. His forms are so simple, yet so difficult to do. They're earth forms, the simple forms. It's what I want. Doing sculpture, especially Native American sculpture, it's so easy to rely on the decorativeness and forget the forms.

And what about the pieces that appear to be nothing but form, the donut-shaped sculptures?
I think of them as Zen forms, and I don't know how any of this we've been talking about relates to them. They don't need my signature. What's the old thing--artists are afraid of their death? These pieces aren't like that. They're not related to immortality, to ego. They don't need me. They're themselves. They are mine, but they're anonymous, too. I'd like to just bury them, and hope that someday someone would dig them up and wonder about them. I like them, I guess, because they're instinctual.

What's the connection with Zen?
I love archery, and I was reading Zen and the Art of Archery, and I was trying to understand how sometimes an arrow would go just where it was supposed to go. I began looking for the same thing in art, and somehow this form symbolizes that for me.

How did you find it?
I did a carving once of a happy man, and he was holding up this shape, which looked like a donut. I loved the shape and how it worked as a symbol.

Does it have a specific meaning?
I've used it both as a female symbol and a symbol of the universe. My work has been going in two different directions--one is these universal symbols, which I don't really understand yet, and the other is representational sculpture, using Native American symbols and ideas. Eventually I think they'll come together.

Individuality is important to you, but you come from such a tribal, community-oriented background.
I want to combine the two. I try to relate how Indians were by how I am. That individuality, expressing that, is important to me. It's important that I do what pleases me. Native American's have tended to do things just because it pleases them, like I do with my donuts--not for money, but because it pleases me. Unfortunately, that's changing for many Indian artists. They're trying to describe, to explain, to please someone else, and the work ends up decorative, with no individuality. I'd like to see Indian artists refer more to themselves, using history as a reference. That would be cultural art, and art has to be cultural.

Do you find that money is a factor in the production of so much decorative art?
The goal for most artists is financial reward, and that's a shame. But the fact that we have no cultural art says we don't want it yet. Two of my donuts used to stand out in front of the gallery, and everyone had to touch them, which was wonderful, but after a while, some kids dumped them, turned them over. It was kind of an anti-art statement by them, which I can certainly understand. This society isn't ready for fine art.
            But it's not the artists fault. I often feel pressure from critics and gallery people to keep things simple, decorative, salable. They don't want to be challenged or strained. My White Buffalo, for example. People liked the form, but they didn't like it when I put the hole in it and added the hand. The hole is a bullet hole, and the hand symbolized the signature of man. It's man who's killing himself. But it's not that simple for me, either. The hole is also a Zen hole. It causes you to wonder.

Isn't it a legitimate goal, though, to want to simplify your art, your statement?
Yes, but it takes years, experience.... It's something for older artists. They have no choice. They have all that culture behind them. My grandfather, who had ridden with Geronimo, was an Indian sheriff, and when I was about six years old, he used to shoot with us. He had this very particular way of shooting. He'd snap his arm down real fast and shoot, while we always extended our arms and aimed so carefully. I could never understand why he shot that way. Then I was out riding the other day, and I saw a rabbit. I tried to aim an imaginary gun at it, and I found that there was no way I could aim while riding. The only way to shoot from horseback is to snap your arm down as my grandfather had done. He had hundreds of years of experience and culture behind him, and I was too dumb to see it.

Are you an Indian artist?
Of course, though my definition might be a little different than some others. If I deal in my art with my environment, my reality, it reflects my culture. And my culture is Indian. But it is my culture, not my parents' or my grandparents' culture. I don't have my grandfather's eyes, thank goodness. You can't go back.

--Stephen Parks, August, 1981

Friday, November 9, 2012

Eugene Dobos: My Charred Flowers (1981)

Eugene Dobos is a Taos painter and sculptor with boundless energy and enthusiasm for life and art.  He is a bluntly honest and articulate conversationalist, and any discussion is punctuated by expressive gesturing and steady pacing.  Energy crackles around him as he hurls himself into an argument or painting.  He speaks with a magisterial boom, relishing the delivery of each word. 
He was born in Dnepropetrovsk, Russia, on Christmas Day.  When he was eleven years old he nearly lost his life:  a live grenade he was tinkering with exploded in his hand.  He lost one eye and all his fingers except two.  Dobos makes the loss seem inconsequential.  He pursues such active interests as cross-country skiing, throwing and collecting boomerangs, breeding and racing homing pigeons, gathering fire wood, shooting skeet and collecting Mannlicher Schonauer rifles.
His evolution as an artist has been marked by phases that appear radically different from each other, but share a common thread of humor, vulnerability, pain and love of beauty.  The paintings that launched his success were somewhat cynical portrayals of human foibles, often featuring angels, devils, or members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.  His targets were pompous and inflated egos, and snobbery of all forms.  After nearly two decades of such sly prickings, Dobos put down his brush, laid himself down on the living room couch, and after a year of counting vigas he got up and devoted himself to sculpture.  He created puzzling and provocative juxtapositions of familiar objects that tweaked our expectations, challenged our prejudices of the way we see.  Some of the pieces were large and velvet-covered; others were small, mirror-lined boxes, often containing flowers.  One, a mirrored box which contained a dark brown velvet rose placed above a damaged brass bullet shell, had a disturbing symbolism that echoed Dobos’s interest in illusion and touched on such varied associations as coffins, sex, beauty, castration, and death.  From the boxes Dobos returned to painting, though his focus was still on flowers.  He painted large canvases of roses, lilies, and hollyhocks.  A trip to Arizona led to an interest in cacti, and he painted them as abstract, phallic shapes, with a painterly mélange of color.
He is now experimenting with Krylon spray paint and stencils, painting multiple shadows of dead aspen leaves and hollyhocks across a silver surface.  Colors are subtle, interlacing with velvety blacks and grays, and evaporating like smoke.  He calls them “my charred flowers . . . look at how gracefully they die . . .” The effect is bittersweet.
About his approach to art, Dobos says:  “That’s my repertoire.  It’s like writing music:  a composer has more than one song, and I have more than one in me, too.  It’s all playing.  Spray paint is my new toy.”  The following conversation with Lois Gilbert began with a discussion of that the interview should be about:

I just read the interview you did with Marian Love for the Santa Fean in 1979.  Did you like the way it was written?
My God . . . that was incredible.  We drank two bottles of champagne and I just raved about everything.  I thought she would edit a little, but she wrote down the whole conversation—it was insane!  It was fun.

I like the way she portrayed you, as a renaissance man with a lot of joie de vivre.
 Well, I don’t want to talk about any of the old stuff.  No history.  That’s all water under the bridge.  Let’s just talk about me and my work as we are now.  I’m a hell of an interesting guy, you know. 

 O.K.  Why do you have so much work here?  Are you planning a show soon?
No, no!  There’s too much promotion going on.  Too much Madison Avenue.  Artists should stay home and work. 

 So you stay and home and come up with a new batch of Doboses every two or three years?
. . . and I’m drummed out of my galleries because I change.

Sometimes change isn’t commercially feasible.  But that shouldn’t stop you from evolving.
It stops a lot of people.  But you’re right:  when you paint for money, you look in the mirror in the morning and it says, “There’s a hypocrite.”  That’s not a good feeling—I don’t care how much money you make.  When I get up in the morning my mirror says, “There’s a good man.”  That’s worth everything.

Isn’t an artist entitled to some financial security, though?
 It’s not true to art!  Security and art are like oil and vinegar.  Art is revolutionary.  Artists are a bunch of malcontents.

What about Renoir?  He was successful, married and happy.  Was he a revolutionary?
Yes.  A revolutionary is a malcontent.  Someone who is dissatisfied with the status quo.  A normal person will say, “Gee, that’s a beautiful mountain.”  An artist can’t leave it alone.  He will say, “Yeah, that’s a beautiful mountain, but wait until I get done with it!”  That is the process.  And that’s revolutionary.

That seems like egomania!
 Believe me:  it takes a lot of ego to take a clean canvas and screw it up.

Some artists are trying to get away from that ego-oriented art, though.  One of Andy Warhol’s famous quotes was, “Wouldn’t you love to be a machine?”
Well, I could be a choo-choo train for that matter.  But now you’re talking about what kind of revolutionary you are.  The process is a subversive process.  The process is the kick.  By-product is by-product.  If you sell it you sell it, if you don’t you don’t.  But the process of inventing and bringing things forth—that’s where it’s at.

What is your process?
There are no two people who proceed alike.  But I am very much concerned with man in the contemporary world, now.  Each generation has a unique dilemma.  Resolutions of past dilemmas are applicable in part, but anyone who calls himself a contemporary artist is someone dealing with contemporary problems.  Artists have a finger on the pulse of society.  They say, “What’s happening?”  It’s a wonderful phrase.  “What’s happening!”  When Russia was on the brink of revolution in 1917, there was total chaos.  So what do the Russian artists start doing?  Russian Constructivism.  If you cannot achieve order in society, the need for order is still there.  So they constructed tidy little worlds of their own.  It was very original, but unfortunately short-lived.  It was the great beginning of Russian Modern Art.  But then Stalin took over and stomped it all out.  The outlook of the Communist state on art is completely different from ours.  No matter what you do, it’s for the State.  In that climate a truly creative mind cannot exist.
            So the process is like making whisky.  Artists have a facility to distill the confusion of the world, and synthesize it—crystalize it—and bring it forth.  Have you ever watched people make whisky?  You take all the mash, and it’s the most goddamn smelly awful crap you ever saw . . . and then it comes out this exquisite Scotch.

If an artist synthesizes contemporary dilemmas, that sounds political to me—and limited in its appeal.
You can look at it in political terms.  Or religious terms.  Jesus Christ was not content with the status quo.  So you don’t have to be politically oriented to be a revolutionary.

But how do your paintings distill contemporary dilemmas?
 Well, if I have to explain that, my paintings are falling on deaf ears, or they’re falling apart.

Falling on deaf ears?  Why not blind eyes?
Blindness is too terrible to even mention.  No, I don’t think paintings should be explained, especially by an artist.

Sunflower,  construction, 24x24x8 inches
Well . . . I’ve been going to the Taos Ski Valley for many years.  In the last few years I’ve noticed that the spruces on one side of the canyon are turning brown.  They are dying.  I’m not a bleeding-heart conservationist, but I started looking into it and discovered it’s being caused by carbon monoxide.  And the Saguaro cacti are falling dead in the desert because of carbon monoxide.  I think it’s a very contemporary dilemma.

Aren’t your paintings commenting on death rather than carbon monoxide?
 Of course!  But carbon monoxide brought it to my attention.  It’s part of the collective consciousness.  It comes down to dichotomies:  life and death, good and evil, yin-yang.  But we are in a new dilemma:  Mother Nature’s breasts are running out of milk.  And I think of this as I do my work.

Could I watch you paint a painting?
Sure.  I prepared the backgrounds on these with about five coats of silver spray paint.  It’s a very elusive surface.  It looks flat now, but when you move to the side—

 It shimmers.  I like the texture of the morilla board under that silver.  The dimples look like waves on an ocean.  Do you use anything but stencils and spray paint?
No.  One of these days I’m going to blow myself up, keeping these spray cans by the stove.  It’s ironic; I’m using these spray cans to paint about pollution, and they’re destroying the ozone layer.  Now we want this to be ghostly.  In the early morning, when dreams and reality fuse . . . that’s the feeling I want.  That’s the best time to create.  This is the opposite action of action painting.  It’s meditative.

Do you meditate?
No.  Why should I?

You can induce dreams.
My God!  I live in them!  No, I tried it once and I got scared.  It got out of control . . . Beautiful, eh?  Sometimes you almost have to will it on there.

You’re going to cover up all that nice black?
In order to create something, you have to destroy something.  In order to get fed, you have to kill something, right?  It’s silly to be a vegetarian.  People say they won’t kill animals, so they kill plants instead.  What’s the difference?  They’re all living things.
            You must remember, we are playing.  In order to play you have to take risks.  If we want security we can go to Brooks Brothers and buy a tweed jacket.  Come hell or high water we know we can go to Brooks Brothers.  If you’re still insecure, vote Republican.  Those who know how to play are artists.  Those who cannot play—collect.

 It looks like fun.
It is fun.  Why do you think artists get hooked on this?  I consider myself a paint junkie.  Now I’m a goddamn Krylon junkie . . . You might think I know what I am doing.  You are wrong!  Now, let’s have a rehearsal on this piece of paper.  You are sitting on my stencil, Lois.

Sorry.  Does it bother you to have someone watching?
 I love an audience!  I love to show off.

Death and the Maiden, spray paint and stencil
Are you really thinking about death?
 Of course.  This is Death and the Maiden.  How do you make death more deadly?  Introduce a maiden, a virgin, an unfulfilled life.  (Dobos bumps the stencil, it moves slightly and leaves a tiny smear.)  But you do not put blemishes on maidens.  Son of a bitch!
            The world is ready for romanticism.  Where else can we go from Ellsworth Kelly?  But don’t get me wrong, I love Ellsworth Kelly.

 Is death a part of your romanticism?
Sure!  It’s like God.  You can make it as abstract and romantic as you want.  One fellow went to Heaven and came back.  His friends asked him, “Did you see God?”  He said, “Sure.”  They said, “What does He look like?”  He said, “She’s black.”

Did thoughts about death go into those huge flowers you painted last year?

When did you start thinking about it?
When I went through my mid-life crisis, that’s when!  I realized you gotta cut out the bullshit.  But nature devised death to be merciful.  I don’t know why people are afraid of it.  Let’s see what we can do before it comes.  I choose to be a revolutionary, and the result of my revolution is a state of elevation.  After Handel wrote The Messiah he said, “I went to Heaven and saw God Himself.”  That is what the process is like.  In making art, man elevates his spirit and celebrates his royalty.

Is this finished?

Eugene Dobos shows at the Heydt-Bair Gallery, Santa Fe; CJS Gallery, Denver and Putney Gallery, Aspen.

--Lois Gilbert, April 1981