Jim Denomie is known for his surrealistic painting style with cartoonish, “revisionist” depictions of Native American history. His body of work includes the socio-political renegade series, intuitive erotic landscapes, and his psychological paintings featuring the dream rabbit. He has received numerous awards and honors for his work, including a 2009 Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art and a 2008 Bush Artist Fellowship. Denomie received his BFA degree from the University of Minnesota in 1995 and has since shown extensively in both Europe and the United States. He has work in the permanent collections of the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.
Denomie describes his narrative painting style as “metaphorical surrealism.” His paintings frequently examine historical and contemporary events in American and Native American history, as well as aspects of pop-culture, art history and Anglo-Indian relations.
Jim Denomie is a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe in northern Wisconsin. He was born in Hayward, Wisconsin in 1955 and currently lives in Franconia, MN. Denomie lived on the reservation until the age of four when his family moved to Chicago, Illinois due to forced government relocation programs taking place within Native communities in the 1960s.
I love the close-up photo of his brush work in this painting, titled Man and Woman, 11″x14″, oil on canvas.
Gail Tremblay, faculty at The Evergreen State College, described Denomie’s work as that which both “sings and stings.” “To penetrate Jim Denomie’s work and to engage with its imagery, one has to let go of all stereotypes one has about American Indians and their art,” Tremblay writes in the Eiteljorg published book Art Quantum. “Indeed, few artists poke fun at stereotypes or at the romanticized images of ‘Noble Savages’ or primitive Indians with Denomie’s vigor. He holds his mirror up to Indigenous people as surely as he does to Americans and American culture. Denomie’s art addresses everyone with equal rigor and has important lessons for all viewers.”
In 2011, Denomie attended a 2 week printmaking residency at Crows Shadow on the Umatilla reservation in Oregon. “Regarding my residency at Crow Shadow, I am really looking forward to visiting the Northwest area again, seeing some old friends and meeting new ones, working with a master printer and making art. Although I have experience in monoprints and linoleum cuts, and recently took a print class at the [University of Minnesota] in lithography and etching, I would not call myself an experienced printer.”
Denomie wrapped up his time in the studio with an amazing body of 72 signed prints, spanning five monotype and monoprint series. Jim worked on a colorful monotype series titled “Blue Mountain Portraits” and a series of monochromatic monotypes using dark brown burnt umber ink. “It’s a variety of imagery, but mostly they’re all some sort of portraiture,” Denomie said.
“Originally, I thought maybe I would do a solid color background, but as I was inking up these plates I decided to go with three colors and just randomly develop a pattern,” Denomie said. “And so laying portraits over the tops of these random patterns would feed into the final project, where you’d get this unexpected juxtaposition of colors that wouldn’t have come if I’d have started with a blank palette.”
“My experience at Crow’s Shadow and my visit to Pendleton has been phenomenal. … I’ve met a lot of great people, very nice people,” Denomie said. “The art has been phenomenal too. I don’t believe I’ve ever created so much art in a two-week period as I have here.”
Wabooz Studio, Denomie’s studio is named for the Ojibwe word for rabbit representative of the Ojibwe trickster figure Nanaboujou. As an alter ego for Denomie, Wabooz makes multiple appearances in the art Jim creates. - And you know how I like rabbits!
Denomie’s point of view cross-cultivates art history with popular culture and Native American histories. The artist’s aesthetic perspective is a proactive platform, a truth articulated in a past/present commingling intended for liberation and understanding. Denomie acts as a social visionary with distinct referential tools.
Denomie’s monumentally scaled painting, Eminent Domain, a Brief History of America is a coast-to-coast extravaganza of Manifest Destiny in the twenty-first century that includes a naked Statue of Liberty and the Long Ranger and Tonto. Tonto says, “You lied to me!” to which the Lone Ranger responds, “Get used to it.”
When asked when he decided a painting was completed, Denomie stated:
…a painting is done when the artist dies. Previously, I felt that a painting was done when I have taken it as far as I could, at that point in time, and signed it. Now, if the painting is still in my possession and I am not impressed with it, I may rework it. A painting is like a motion picture, always evolving. We hit pause when it looks good to us and then we sign it. But we may come back to it sometime later and look at it again with a perspective enhanced by experience and development and say, “this painting needs more work.”
Denomie’s preferred creation time is in the evening while listening to music. He starts with an initial sketch which serves as a rough draft and continually refines it until it is ready to be transferred into a painting. At times Denomie mixes his paints directly on the canvas when working quickly. His large-scale works receive a ground layer of paint which lays out a basic composition. He describes his painting process as a “chess game”, derived from the many decisions he makes when placing, layering and constructing his detailed works.
In 2005, Denomie completed the task of painting at least one painting a day, for one year. Much of this work was showcased in the exhibition “New Skins” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2007.
During the year that Denomie painted a painting a day, he made himself paint at least one small canvas per day. These paintings were of a face, more or less of a Native person—sometimes a woman with two sets of concentric circles for breasts, more often a man with a headband and feather—with an open, toothy mouth, facing straight ahead. The faces were not large (5″x7″ or 8″x10″) and Denomie covered the surface area with wide strokes in bright colors, finishing each within fifteen or thirty minutes.
He did not try to create a perfect work of art; instead he let himself play with the paint. He used the colors already on the palette or added new ones based on his mood.
Daily surges of emotion affected the work—one day’s face grinning, another sour, one yelling—but more often the faces evolved their own personalities, their own neutral but suggestive expressions. When the face was done, Denomie signed the back and named it, if it happens to have reminded him of anyone.
Why did Denomie do the daily painting project? Denomie began the project because he found painting too often pushed to the side. Between work, family, and the rest of a normal life, he wasn’t getting time in his studio every day. When he did paint, he would feel “like a foreigner” to his own work. He wanted to develop a new habit of painting consistently.
Halfway through the project, Denomie was thrilled with his discoveries—all accidental, all not possible without the daily painting. He tells the story of one particularly difficult day when he thought he might not go out to the studio at all. Instead he decided to go out, take whatever color was on the palette, and just paint a circle with three lines through it. The resulting face—abstract, essential—so excited him that he stayed to paint another.
As the project went on, he found the faces becoming more raw, more askew, more independent of him. He worked towards balancing deliberation—since the painting time is brief, he made each stroke is important—intuitively tracing the desire that arose between himself, the paint, and the canvas. Denomie proved to himself that the project let him get his “head into the oven” of creativity.
To hear Mr. Denomie in his own words, folks can give a listen to his radio interview conducted by mnartists.org’s Marya Morstad.
Audio Interview with Jim Denomie (MP3)
Non-Negotiable from SMM Media Design on Vimeo.