Duane Linklater

New York

at 80WSE

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In this exhibition, which originated at Mercer Union in Toronto, Duane Linklater offered an assortment of artworks by himself and by family members that raised urgent questions about how institutions of power systematically grant—or deny—access to spaces, narratives, and property. Linklater, who is Omaskêko Cree from Moose Cree First Nation in Northern Ontario, borrowed the show’s title, “From Our Hands,” from a touring Ontario exhibition held over three decades ago that presented Indigenous craft, including the work of his paternal grandmother, Ethel Linklater.

For his show, Linklater built steel-and-concrete armatures on which he exhibited five of his grandmother’s resplendent beaded works: pairs of mitts, mukluks, baby boots, and slippers made of hide, fur, and wool. The placement of these supports at arm-length’s remove on large plywood islands prevented close scrutiny of the works they elevated—a subtle cue, perhaps, that we should attend to these objects’ conceptual significance rather than, as we are encouraged to do with artifacts displayed behind glass in ethnographic museums, marvel at their skillful construction. Linklater here raised questions about how Indigenous objects are valued differently by the communities from which they come and the colonialist institutions that often archive them. He continued this line of inquiry in Accession (2016), a framed digital print of a museum’s object file that valued his grandmother’s baby boots at twenty-two Canadian dollars in 1985.

Sculptures made up of perforated steel studs, powder-coated in red or white, sandwiching thin strips of drywall and plywood (“Untitled Problems,” 2016) stood in small groupings in the first three galleries. Reaching two-thirds of the way up toward the ceiling, these works performed no evident structural purpose, yet they allude to the materials of an industrialist class made wealthy by construction projects on lands once belonging to Indigenous people. Faux fur, rawhides, partly rolled carpets, inkjet printouts of a buffalo in profile, and felt blankets atop or beneath the sculptures speak to economies of trade, while the sculptures’ dimensions—which reflect the width of Linklater’s chest and his height with arms extended upward—render them anthropomorphic, like so many figures occupying, or reclaiming, the space.

Linklater’s excavation of the museum is literalized in What Then Remains (2016), a steel beam configuration that spells out the work’s title along three walls of the venue, which were exposed for the exhibition’s duration. He adopted the phrase from Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s charged closing remarks for a 2016 United States Supreme Court case that upheld a tribal court’s jurisdiction to try a non-native man accused of sexually abusing a thirteen-year-old tribal member on native land.  After Linklater’s show ended, Sotomayor’s words became a permanent substructural fixture of 80WSE, left intact and covered over with drywall. If the trial was a reminder that Indigenous sovereignty is subject to the Supreme Court’s whims, Linklater here reversed that colonialist logic by symbolically recoding a non-native space as Indigenous.

The exhibition also included a contribution by Tobias Linklater, the artist’s twelve-year-old son. A high-spirited stop-motion video based loosely on the cult Nintendo game The Legend of Zelda, the work—Origin of the Hero (2016)—seemed to serve as a strategic yet tender plea for the representation of artwork by future generations of Indigenous artists in Western institutions. Unlike textbook examples of institutional critique, the careful staging of works in this show offered a profoundly personal statement, providing an ingress to lived Indigenous realities that this country has so often, and so ruinously, hidden from view.

Duane Linklater

Toronto

at Susan Hobbs

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“Learning,” Duane Linklater’s first exhibition at Susan Hobbs Gallery, takes its title from a print by the celebrated Ojibwa artist Benjamin Chee Chee. The print depicts an instructional moment between two generations of Canada Goose, mother and gosling. Incorporated by Linklater into his exhibition, it hung near the entrance of a bright and narrow gallery space. It was one of four components comprising Linklater’s installation. Near the print was a wall painting composed of three parallel yellow lines zigzagging like a stylized lightning bolt from ceiling to floor. Seemingly an abstraction, it is actually the modified logo of the Ontario Northland Railway, a crucial link between the isolated north of Quebec province and the more populated south. An Omaskêko Cree, Linklater (who just won the prestigous Sobey Art Award) is of the Moose Cree First Nation; born in Ontario’s Cochrane District, he now resides in North Bay. The triple yellow zigzag is a fixture from his past, a trace of something that has disappeared. An underused stretch of railway was closed last September, leaving the communities it had served more isolated than they already had been.

The remaining elements of “Learning” were composite images that address adolescent identity. One is taken up mainly by a photograph of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain at his legendary “MTV Unplugged” performance in 1993. The other features Mohawk activist Richard Nicholas standing atop an overturned vehicle, his rifle raised in the air, during a 1990 clash with Québécois police. Photographed from a computer screen with a digital camera, both images are pixelated and bordered on one side by a gray rectangle that was part of the screen. Taken together, the four elements of “Learning”—a found print, a wall painting with an appropriated motif, and two re-photographed photographs—generate uneasy connections. For example, Cobain committed suicide at 27, one year following the “Unplugged” session. The troubled Chee Chee did the same while held at an Ottawa jail in 1977; he was 32 years old.

What, exactly, are we “learning”? The exhibition’s title was timely, given recent reports of nutritional “studies” run by the Canadian government in the 1940s and 1950s, in which more than 1,300 aboriginal people, mainly children, were systematically starved. News of these experiments has reignited debates about education and assimilation in First Nations communities. While Linklater does not deal with these events directly, they are inevitably present. Moreover, one of his past strategies was to reproduce letters he received from cultural institutions in response to queries he sent them. These letters often reveal institutional lapses in properly contextualizing aboriginal issues. Two small vitrines were set up upstairs as a kind of supplement to “Learning,” affording insight into Linklater’s research process by presenting archival material on the corporate branding of the Ontario Northland Railway. In one, a handwritten letter from the company’s archivist accompanied swatches of the railway’s colors—gold, yellow and blue—which, like the wall painting, distill memory.

When he shoots images from his computer screen, Linklater enters into a historical dialogue with such classic appropriation artists as Sherrie Levine, who rephotographed reproductions of photographic masterworks. However, unlike some contemporary work that likewise draws on the legacy of Levine and the Pictures Generation—the beguilingly opaque work of Elad Lassry, for example—the personal relevance of the found material is here quite evident. Nothing is hermetic. Everything has significance.