Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Shonto Begay is at Home in a World of Light

Shonto Begay, “Light Play,” 2022, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36 in.

At present, the main space at Modern West is devoted to a single artist, the Diné master Shonto Begay, whose primarily acrylic-on-canvas paintings have a unique way of showing the interconnection between, on one side, people who live their lives in complete partnership with the land and, on the other, a world those people see as fully alive. The colorful works now filling this appropriately sunlit gallery — images that disprove the popular delusion that the Southwest is a nearly monochromatic desert essentially devoid of living things — range from grand and iconic vistas to intimate scenes that tug at the heartstrings. They don’t attempt to rekindle or perpetuate the clichés about his people accepted as true by the general audience. At a time when activists want to censor any view of America they don’t like or understand, Shonto Begay replaces their negativity with convincing, positive depictions of a world he knows from lifelong experience, with insights into the reality of how it feels to inhabit an animated world, not with resistance, but with the positive force and dignity inherent in this worldview.

These 20 canvases are added to Modern West’s archive of the artist, bringing the total to around 60, in what promises to become a comprehensive portrait of contemporary Diné life and culture. “Diné,” as we so often learn when subjugated people’s languages are restored to them, turns out to simply mean “people,” and Diné Bazaad, “the language of the people.” Athabaskan speech is as hard for older, non-native speakers to learn as painting is to master late in life, and it was suppressed by the white settlers who took the People’s freedom without compensation. Begay, having been sent to a so-called Indian school as a child, where his native tongue was denied him, in time recovered his culture, family, and language, but must have known he would be standing with one foot in each of two antagonistic worlds. Today, he credits the refuge of his imagination and a love of drawing that began in childhood for his survival, at school and since then. Given his obvious gifts for expressing himself on canvas, is it any wonder that his most successful form of communication turned out to be the universal medium of art?

Shonto Begay, “Ya’ateeh’ Shi’ K (Greetings My Friend),” 2022 acrylic on canvas, 16 x 12 in.

The primary tool invented by Begay to visualize his content, his worldview, is a way of painting that is unique, though occasionally labeled as derivative of the style of another social pilgrim, Vincent van Gogh. A closer examination, however, shows that while, as Begay phrases it, they both listen to the same spirit, the similarity is superficial. Van Gogh, generally described as a Post-Impressionist, was only one of half a dozen European artists who worked to cut through the hazy, sensual way the Impressionists focused on their contemporary life and, in so doing, restored the visual presence of physical structure. Van Gogh loaded his brush with many colors and used a variety of individual marks to assemble vibrant images, which were also troubled by his nervous nature and struggle to connect with the life around him. 

Shonto Begay, who is gregarious and generous, uses his brush to produce layered patterns of fluid, energetic, monochromatic lines that he layers to build up a deep surface. This can be seen most clearly in smaller works, like “Ya’ateeh’ shi’ K,” which is translated as “Greetings My Friend.” Here, a handful of silhouetted men and women socialize in the middle distance. Although most are indistinguishable in what looks like twilight, the one who speaks has stepped out of the shadows into the viewer’s space. He wears a colorfully embroidered shirt, an ornamented belt and matching, turned up hat. Clearly, as he extends his hand in welcome he bridges the gap between two cultural worlds. Every part of this image is comprised of several colors of paint, laid down individually in demonstratively cursive, linear forms. Not to be missed are his shadow, which omits the lighter, top color of the ground around him, and the way that ground rises, flamelike, up the legs and into the bodies of the figures behind him. Begay shows them as good as rooted in their homeland, grasped by the soil. Like all his paintings, this one is saturated with the behavior of light, but it’s also reminiscent of a remark made about van Gogh’s teacher, Camille Pissarro, who was said to paint “the smell of the earth.” 

Begay’s “Centering on a Presence” (acrylic on canvas 48 x 36 in.) as it appears at Modern West, photo by Geoff Wichert

The luminous sky ofCentering on a Presence” appears to be burned out at the top of the canvas by the gallery’s overhead light fixture, but closer observation reveals it’s actually the painted sun just coming into view, an effect created by changing the balance of hues among the layers that comprise the sky. In “Shadow Chase,” a bird’s eye view of a sheep camp in winter, a diagonal shadow covering the upper half of the scene looks like a real shadow on the canvas, but again, further examination shows that it’s not the room’s lighting, but the shadow of a cloud moving above the land. Over and over among these 20 artworks, all but one of them outdoor scenes, we see them resist their indoor confinement in centrifugal ways. The one interior view, Hearth Glow,” is set in darkness, lit only by a warming fire. Light, and the way it changes from moment to moment, is of course one of the more telling ways we know the planet we live on is a living place.

Not all is well on this planet, however. “A Dusty Return to School” recalls too many scenes of whole peoples, not just the Diné, being forced to relocate, while the battling men in “Campfire Fight” show, with their blended sartorial choices and gimme cap worn backwards, just how how far out of balance they are: how unsustainable their lives remain. Still, both “Divine Connecting” and “Eyes of the Mountain” have in common an awareness of the land beneath them and the living things around them contributing to a sense of well-being. Even when events challenge him, the man on horseback “Searching Undergrowth for Lost Goats,” appears to be accompanied by animal or spirit companions and centered in his work. In “Carrying Light,” a rider brings a nimbus of holiness, emblematic of his conscious awareness, which lights the way as he makes his journey.

Shonto Begay, “Divine Connecting,” 2022, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 in.

The Diné are a matrilineal people. If you asked Shonto Begay about himself, he might locate himself by saying, first, that his mother is of the Bitter Water Clan, and only then that his father is a medicine man of the Salt Clan. That a much-travelled and accomplished man of the world still acknowledges the primacy of those who give us all birth is one clue as to how this ancient people have survived where others have not, and why they now seem poised to step up, even as those who invaded their lands stumble, falter and thirst. For his audience, another insight comes from a patient and studious approach to the art of those who, like Shonto Begay, took what was worthy in what European culture had to offer while holding on to their own ways, making the best of both.

Shonto Begay: A World of Light, Modern West, Salt Lake City, through Mar. 4

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.