ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Julie Buffalohead envisions a world filled with tutu-wearing raccoons, sassy rabbits, and other anthropomorphic animals. Creatures carry on domestic scenes in which masks, costumes, and fake antlers are used to alter the identities of her many characters, and intimate, deeply personal explorations go hand in hand with sharp political critique. Coyote Dreams, the first major museum exhibition of her work, currently on view at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, offers a mid-career survey of Buffalohead’s development, charting themes she has explored since the early 2000s. It reveals her experiments in form and material and an increasingly deconstructive approach to painting.
Buffalohead’s work sneaks up on you. The paintings have a storybook quality, with cuddly anthropomorphic animals and pastel colors that serve as allegorical symbols. Masks and disguises figure in often, allowing animals and people to shift their identities — a human becomes a coyote, an owl becomes a rabbit, a wolf becomes a deer. We see the struggle of feeling out of place or having to pretend in order to fit in. In “The Heist” (2014), Buffalohead depicts a deer with her fawn nestled in a traditional cradleboard that’s strapped to her back. She faces a wolf, with antlers tied to its head and a rabbit perched on its back. The rabbit nonchalantly holds a spool of ribbon that’s also bound around the wolf’s antlers. While the deer and the wolf are confronting each other, the work evokes sympathy for the wolf, with its pitiful attempt at transformation; the piece speaks to a longing for authenticity, to be a “real” mother. But there’s danger in there as well. We may feel sorry for the wolf, but it can eat the deer, after all.
“The Measurement” — which like “The Heist” was created in 2014 and uses a similar palette of blue/black background with warm tones for the animal characters — also features a wolf and a deer, in this case on two sides of a diptych. The wolf rolls around on the ground while toying with flat, black-and-white puppets of a pilgrim and a buffalo. On the other side of the piece, a deer curls up sullenly in a fetal position while her antlers are measured by a masked rabbit sporting a pink tutu. Owls wearing pink rabbit masks look on as silent observers to the whole scene. As in much of Buffalohead’s work, the symbolism is a bit elusive, but there’s definitely a sense that the deer feels judged for not being “deer” enough, perhaps referring to Buffalohead’s own mixed heritage identity. The wolf plays out a Thanksgiving pageant version of American history. The flimsy shadow puppets are the extent of what children learn about Native American history in schools.
Not all of Buffalohead’s work is so ambiguous. In particular, her commentary on Native appropriation rings loud and clear. In one of the most startling of these works, “Christina Fallin on a Stick” (2014), Buffalohead places the famously controversial image of starlet Christina Fallin wearing a headdress on a stick held up by a squirrel, while a chipmunk rolls around in presumable laughter. On one level, Fallin’s act of cultural appropriation becomes a two-dimensional object without any agency of its own. The work is also a metaphorical beheading of Fallin in retaliation for her actions. Morbid? Possibly. But Buffalohead’s whimsy gives her a certain leeway in taking this approach.
When you look at the trajectory of Buffalohead’s work, there’s a growing attention to transparency, an increased interest in visually revealing her painting process. Earlier pieces, such as “Mine” (2005) and “Coyote Dreams as a Pinup Girl” (2002) reference the Old Masters, with paint applied in multiple layers. You can see similarities to Francisco de Goya’s “The Clothed Maja” (La maja vestida) in the latter work, not just in the artist’s palette but in the demure pose of the fox-mask-wearing model, coyly placing her hand-paw on her head to offer a better view of her voluptuous figure. The backgrounds of these works are given just as much attention as the main subjects. In “Mine,” the rich background and expressionist treatment of the wolf figure contrast with a Disney-like portrayal of the baby rabbit it holds.
Some of Buffalohead’s more recent works, by contrast, leave the background completely blank, allowing the handmade paper to stand in. “If You Make This World Bad and Ugly” (2014), for example, only features acrylic paint on its animals. One of them, a gopher, holds a stick from which dangles a puppet of a miniature man in a suit, while oil rigs and a flying black-and-white duck appear in the distance. Rendered in pastel hues, the foreground animals — which include a few owls, a rabbit, a turtle (with appendages and head hidden in his shell), and a gopher — are adorable, offering a childlike resistance to industrial corporations — in this case, the oil companies — wreaking havoc on the planet. In the artist’s playful dream, those companies appear as small and flimsy as paper dolls.
Buffalo has painted the foreground animals with a very wet brush, so that you can still see the mulberry paper underneath as well as the original pencil lines. The small oil rigs are also rendered in pencil against the stark white background. The piece feels incomplete, like a sketch rather than a finished painting. In this way Buffalohead draws attention to her hand in the work, making clear her process of creation. She gives herself vulnerability, opening up her work as a conversation rather than a monologue.
Taken as a whole, Buffalohead becomes hard to define. Her work is at once cute and heartbreaking, emotional and subversive. She allows the viewer to journey with her into the meaning of the work. We come away with our own understandings of the theatrical scenes that emerge from her brush.
Julie Buffalohead: Coyote Dreams continues at the Minnesota Museum of American Art (The Pioneer Endicott, 141 E 4th Street, St Paul, Minnesota) through February 22.