Andrea Carlson’s Red Exit at The Bockley Gallery an optical illusion that cuts deep and soars high

I’m annoyed at myself for taking two days to write this – the exhibit is only open at The Bockley Gallery until Aug 29! Andrea Carlson’s Red Exit is one large scale work of 60 separate works, paintings or maybe screen prints that form a singular work that feels like an optical illusion that draws you into its wave.

From far away, you see the waves and rows that seem like symmetry, until symmetry soon gives way to a modified repetition and a giant loon taking off to an audience of animals, creatures and royalty. Then it hits you like a stop sign, a red EXIT sign poised about where an exit sign would sit if above a door. The EXIT is above an infinity sign surrounded by animals, people and what looks like jaws. The infinity sign, while not what draws the eye, rests closer to dead center of the work.

Carlson is Ojibwe and some of the significance of the imagery is explained in the exhibition write up…

…the loon is one of the Earth Divers of the Ojibwe flood story in which the world is made new. … A canoe is made from the birch bark pages of the Potawatomi Chief Pokagon’s Red Man’s Rebuke. The earth effigy “Man Mound” (located in Baraboo, Wisconsin) gets up and walks away. Mica hands and talons of the Mississippian people appear, as well as turtle shells, bats, faces, ribbon work, cedar boughs, and petroglyphs speaking in imagery from an 1849 drawing by Chief Buffalo protesting the violation of the 1842 Treaty of La Pointe.

There’s a lot to see and learn and take in. From a distance, after letting the work soak in, I see the pyramid on the dollar bill, with the eye pushed down, turned into a loon’s head. The yellow of the work strikes me. I’m drawn to the faces with colorful masks like muted (in color, not voice) Mexican wrestlers with yellow hands poised above to look like crowns.

I heard an author on NPR say recently that while she’s writing the book is hers, once it’s published it belongs to the audience. Whether an artist likes it or not, that’s true. I can look up “yellow hand Ojibwe” to learn about the symbolism. (I did; found nothing.) But the truth is that the image is disconcerting to me because it makes me think of the Red Hand of Ulster, which quickly brings me back to Native community and the painted red hand covering many mouths I’ve seen at marches for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It may not be the intention, but it’s my experience.

I was taken with the creatures. There are scary furry fanged rodent paired with the IKWE letters, which relates back to the part of a series (Daughters of the Country) about a girl who is married off to a Scottish fur trader (in 1770) to the advantage of her tribe but to her detriment. There are creatures that look like Pokemon characters.

Finally there are the words. When in doubt, go to the words. There is the phrase One Fed All, which is pretty clear. There is also Red Man’s Rebuke reference in the gallery’s notes above, but serves an invitation to a viewer like me to learn more. What I found was an excerpt from Red Man’s Rebuke

On behalf of my people, the American Indians, I hereby declare to you, the pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes, that we have no spirit to celebrate with you the great Columbian Fair now being held in this Chicago city, the wonder of the world. No; sooner would we hold the high joy day over the graves of our departed than to celebrate our own funeral, the discovery of America. And while…your hearts in admiration rejoice over the beauty and grandeur of this young republic and you say, ‘behold the wonders wrought by our children in this foreign land,’ do not forget that this success has been at the sacrifice of our homes and a once happy race.

The words are especially poignant as I write this post during a curfew imposed in St Paul after rioting in Minneapolis last night, in the shadow of the murder of George Floyd two months ago, the shooting of Jacob Blake earlier this week and the murder-suicide of a Minneapolis couple last night, wrongly presumed to be at the hands of police. An understandable mistake given that the police were responsible for the other injuries.

Call the The Bockley Gallery to book ahead to see the Red Exit. But, if you miss that you can also see Carlson’s Anti-Retro at the Walker’s Exhibit, Don’t let this be easy (open until July 4, 2021).

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