"What's good here?"
It's a common question from a traveler in a new place, checking out a new restaurant.
In artist Jim Denomie's painting "Vatican Cafe," the traveler is Tonto, sitting with a motley crew at the Last Supper. Through the windows of the cafe is evidence of a violent Christian history: the burning of Joan of Arc, the refutation of Galileo's scientific claims, religious wars, and Ku Klux Klan members gathering before a cross.
"What's good here?" Tonto asks, and viewers are forced to wonder what the answer could be.
"Vatican Cafe" is just one of many pointed pieces currently on display in Denomie's show, "Dialogues," at Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis, several of which feature the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
"I started this Tonto/Lone Ranger series a few years ago," Denomie said. "They're stand-ins for Native American culture versus mainstream culture and my perspective on the two."
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Author Louise Erdrich, owner of the nearby Birchbark Books, stopped by the gallery recently while walking her dog, and congratulated Denomie on the new show.
"I love the use of colors — it's so joyous and ironic and funny — it's wonderful. And every corner has a hilarious visual joke in it."
Denomie's paintings are laden with symbolism. Tree stumps and chickens denote colonization, while owls indicate bad omens. Elvis taking a selfie speaks to modern America's obsession with media, popular culture and shallow imagery; bingo cards evoke the history of Indian gaming, with reservations being forced to rely on casinos for steady income.
In "Communion," Denomie takes an unflinching look at the role of Christian missionaries in the sexual abuse of Native American children and women. A zombie-like priest forces children to take communion. Instead of a wafer, he forces them to eat bananas.
"I've used the banana and banana peels to represent sexual assault, spent condoms, etc; it's absurdist yet direct," Denomie said. "The church, it's such great fodder! I make up nothing — I just comment on what exists.
"I work as honestly and as fearlessly as I can," he added. "I comment on it, but not from a place of anger."
"Dialogues" continues at Bockley Gallery through Dec 13.