Art Works Blog

Art Talk with visual artist Gregg Deal

“Taking the time to honor the abilities that I've been given and to honor the voice that I have I believe is honoring the tradition of my people.”  –Gregg Deal

What does it mean to be an indigenous person in the 21st century? That question fuels Gregg Deal's art practice, which examines issues of identity, the way we are perceived by others, and the effect of popular culture, particularly stereotypes, on both. His work is provocative and painful, a touch of humor at times lightening but never obscuring the activist message at its core about the many ways mainstream culture has corrupted and usurped indigenous culture. Take, for example, the Last American Indian on Earth, a performance project in which Deal, dressed head-to-toe in what most of us think of as Indian dress (regalia is a lot more specific to individual tribes than is generally acknowledged by non-Natives), goes grocery shopping or sightseeing on the National Mall. The performance garners a range of reactions--outrage, objectification, anger, and sometimes just plain old ignorance. We spoke to Deal during a busy day of meetings and interviews in DC about his father's influence on his work as an artist, how tradition fits into his art making, and the twin powers of language and art.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience of art?

GREGG DEAL: I believe I understood it pretty early on. My father was really big into a lot of different mediums growing up. I grew up in a blue-collar home that fed more on the side of practicality than on those of following your passion or following what you're good at, and as a result he was a car mechanic for most of my childhood. We've had conversations about it, I think that to a certain degree that he had a lot of regret for not [following his passion for art], but he put a lot of that on me. He always had very high standards about what was good and what wasn't good aesthetically and so from a very early age, in hopes of gaining approval from my father, I worked really hard to get better and get better. I did a lot as a kid, and in high school as a result of my grades suffering, I worked really hard on it in high school as well. It's always been something that's there and always lingered in my life definitely.  

NEA: Who are some of the artists that your father introduced you to? 

DEAL: My dad was a child of the 60s and 70s, so a lot of the work that he was looking at was the guy that did all the [album cover art] work for the Harry Nilsson, you know that style. Harry Nilsson is this 60s folk singer and he did this whole album called The Point!,and it's about this kid that was born in a land of points where everybody, all the people and everything in it, has a point, and this kid was born without a point. So it's his journey about trying to find his point, where everybody else knows that they have a point. I mean you can hear the wordplay in there. But the guy who drew it, and even some of the art that came out of John Lennon's work, that sort of sketch surrealism, Yellow Submarine kind of stuff. That was the stuff that he was familiar with. But then he also had books about typography and specific typefaces and stuff, which for some reason always fascinated me. I would sit down with the books and I would draw out typefaces and stuff. And so, it was a little bit of those, so it was less conventional. I wasn't looking at Cezanne, and I know my dad really likes Picasso, but I didn't really engage the traditional artists until just before college and into college. Before that it was a lot of pop culture art; late middle school and high school it was comic books, which then turned into graffiti, and there's players in graffiti that really inspired me as well. When I got to college I had this sort of pop culture knowledge of art and illustration and design and started piling in the more traditional artists and the contemporary artists… and so I think it created a really unique conversation in my head about what works and what doesn't in contemporary art. 

a painting of a Native American man holding a red balloon against a whitewashed newspaper background

Party On by Gregg Deal. Photo courtesy of the artist.

NEA: Having been immersed in art all of your life, do you remember the moment when you decided to be a professional artist?

DEAL: Trying to grasp the idea that I could do art for a living, like an actual living for the future, I don't think came until college, and even then it was this wrestle with, "Okay I'm married, and my wife has a good job and is making good money, and we have a mortgage, and then we have kids," and it's like, you can't just go chase after an art career with all of those financial obligations hanging over your head. It wasn't until I got laid off in 2009 that it was do or die. I found it hard to believe that I went to school and I have been given these talents and abilities and I can't provide for my family. I [couldn’t] get a job doing what I had been doing up to that point, which was graphic design, and decided to just have a go at creating art and trying to sell it. It ultimately became more practical than graphic design, which was really funny because my wife wanted me to do graphic design to be more practical. I began to realize that society places so much emphasis on things like a business degree, and having to do a three-month-long unpaid internship, and then to start in the industry that you got a degree in making $30,000 a year, or even commission-only situations, and those people are starving, even though they're wearing suits, they're starving and they're struggling because they have to make their bones. It's exactly the same in the art world. You have to work hard, and you have to make your bones, and you're probably not going to get paid for a while, so you just have to make it work, and once I realized that then it was just all in. like showroom perfect.  

NEA: How do you describe your art practice?

DEAL: I'll break this up in two parts. The first part would be that everything I do starts conceptually. So I spend a lot of time thinking, which is really hard to help people understand, especially those that are relying on me to finish something, because most of my time is spent thinking about it, internalizing it, breaking it down in my head, visualizing it. I can--and I think most artists probably can do this--I can picture exactly what I'm going to do, exactly how I will execute it, exactly what it's going to look like, and probably nine times out of ten it happens that way. I don't keep a sketchbook very often, unless it's for something really really specific or difficult, because everything's in my head. So I'll spend an enormous amount of time conceptualizing a painting before I actually go and execute it. As far as mediums, I'm a painter, a conceptual artist, site-specific [artist], and performance artist. It's kind of a mixed bag. I find in the art world you've got be able to jerry-rig just about anything. I have done and continue to do a lot of printmaking, woodcuts, screenprints, but I [also] have an enormous amount of love for painting. I love doing big spraypaint murals. But then there's something that's almost immersive in performance art, and the art of expression, which I kind of look at as being like movies, you know. You're a character and you're visually showing something to somebody or to a group of people in real time, that has a lot of emotion or a lot of concept or ideas, and you're helping people see that. So it's not just a flat image on a wall that somebody comes along and gets to judge or internalize based on what they see, as opposed to watching something actually do something in front of you. I think performance art is an incredible tool especially for indigenous artists. 

NEA: Can you talk a little more about performance art as a tool for indigenous artists? 

DEAL: I think it's an incredible tool especially for indigenous artists because indigenous art is marginalized so often and reduced down to what [some people] would deem as being traditional indigenous arts, which might be potter, basket weaving, rugs, even down to pow wow-style dancing, drumming, or even creating the drums, which is all beautiful, but it's exactly what people would expect. Contemporary indigenous artists like myself have a really strong social message with it and it's really easy to emphasize and illustrate those social messages by making myself the work and putting it out there in a way that people can consume it and they can see it and they can feel it. I have this piece coming up that I'm doing… called "Red Skin.” I'm taking all the microaggression, the abuse, the statements that people make, which may be micro in the way that they're put out there, like a nip, sort of like a needle prick as opposed to chopping off your hand. But all of those things compounded into one is extremely aggressive, and so I'm taking all of those things, my own experiences, experiences of friends and family, experiences even that I've heard about, and I'm compiling it into an eight-hour-long performance piece with participating volunteers that I'm working with who will be exercising those abuses onto me publicly in front of everybody.  And the reason for that is because if somebody comes along and says to me "Hey, you don't really look Indian," that's an aggressive statement to invalidate the type of person who I believe that I am, whether you believe it or not. And oftentimes that statement is followed up with "My great-great-grandma is part Cherokee," so they just validated themselves and invalidated me all in the same sentence. While that seems small, that is compiled on being called a dirty Indian, or being called a redskin, or seeing images of headdresses on social media, you know Pharrell Williams wearing his headdress on the front of a magazine. All of these things compiled into one creates an extremely difficult place to exist as an indigenous person and to be able to carry my identity and assert my own identity. What's even more difficult is I have children who are indigenous who are not as mature as I am and are still trying to develop their identity and their sense of identity and they have to navigate these things. So if I take all of that and if I put it into one space, where everybody can see it [as art], not just as its microaggression but as its real lump of aggression, it would help people understand things like the [name of the] Washington Redskins, why that's an issue. 

a cartoon image of a stereotypical Native American chief painted over a background of posters for "Wild West" Indian shows

Noble Red Man Vanishing Race Your Wild West by Gregg Deal. Photo courtesy of the artist.

NEA: You mentioned that people usually think of indigenous art as pottery, baskets, etc. What is your own relationship with tradition in terms of your artwork? 

DEAL: That's a good question. Tradition is a really tough thing because it means a couple things. I have friends that are very traditional. They participate in the same ceremonies that have been part of indigenous groups for thousands of years, and that is part of their tradition, and I respect that. So I guess my tradition is respecting that, respecting my blood, respecting my family, respecting my friends who are all indigenous, and supporting them the best way that I can so that they in turn can support me. So creating art activism supports the effort of indigenous people being able to carry their traditions in a respectful way without being stifled or marginalized or even dismissed because of what they're doing. I don't go to ceremony, but I support those that do. I think it's vital, and I think it's extremely important. You know, that's a tough question. I mean my wife is white, I'm half white, I identify mostly as being indigenous, but I'm in a world where I wear Western clothes and I speak English, so respect for the tradition of my people comes in little ways. My kids have traditional middle names, spoken in the language of my tribe, and [I’m] making sure my kids understand the respect of specific items and articles and processes, all of these things are in place specifically to help my children understand that.  And while you may not be able to see that in my art, it's part of my work because it's part of my everyday. Taking the time to honor the abilities that I've been given and to honor the voice that I have I believe is honoring the tradition of my people.  

NEA: It seems to me that most artists have a certain set of questions that they're always pursuing or a narrative that they are exploring. What’s your narrative? 

DEAL: I think somebody would probably look at my work and always say that the narrative is something activist-driven. It has an activist edge but that's just the nature of being an indigenous person in the modern day. I think a lot of my work is exploring the ideas and the philosophies behind being indigenous in the modern day, which equates to activism, because I side on the side of indigenous people to be able to assert their own identity. But I think it's interesting to take cartoons from the 60s and 70s that have gross caricatures of indigenous people and to put those on a canvas. Making that statement, "Look, these stereotypes exist and we should fight against those stereotypes," which we should, but for me it's [also] an exercise in looking at the philosophy of indigenous people in American culture. It's about looking at the viewpoint of indigenous people but also looking at the viewpoint of non-indigenous people in American culture, and how that exists and where that exists and what sort of message that brings and what people think and being able to break down those stereotypes between the stereotypes and the real world. I think I'm in a constant state of looking at pop culture and exploring the various philosophies of colonialism and indigenous people and pop culture and consumerism and all of the isms that are in there. 

NEA: Which artists do you see, if any, in your “family tree” as an artist?

DEAL: My father has always been a very big part of that. I know that I come from a people, and I think most indigenous people are this way, that are very creative. Look, if a bunch of Indians can take a bunch of porcupine quills and turn it into a bag, I think that's pretty creative…. I suppose my father was probably the biggest influence early on, and then from that point on I just kind of was always on my own, and so I would always look outside of that. So the indigenous voice comes into play less in sort of a traditional way, looking at let's say Edward Curtis images, less looking at that, and more looking at things from the perspective of Malcolm X. What does Malcolm X say about color in America and how does that affect me? Or looking at the philosophies that John Trudell puts out there and some of the poetry and the statements that he makes about the state of humanity. But then also looking at Johnny Depp and the way that he portrays indigenous people in The Lone Ranger and why that exists. So I think about the old, but I am often pushing the new because as native people we have to survive in the new. And so I rely on people like [my friend] Carrie Lessard to carry and to hold on to the traditions that are needed so that I can pull from that when I need to, but I rely on what's around me to make sure that indigenous people as a contemporary people are here, here and now. Now that said, I will look at… the designs that my tribe makes on cradle boards because it's a very specific design. So I'll look back on those designs that are less like portraits, which are something I really like, but more about lines and shapes and things and colors. And I think that those things make awesome backdrops to whatever it is that I'm doing. Gosh that's a really tough question; you're making me think here.

NEA: I think one of the things a lot of people might know you is the Last American Indian on Earth performance project in which you walk around town dressed in full native regalia. Can you please talk about the genesis of that work?

DEAL: When I was in college my senior year, I had to take a performance art class, and I hated it But the professor said that we all needed to find an artist to concentrate on. At the time I knew I was getting ready to finish, and I was trying to figure out what direction I was going to go in. I knew that I was going to be walking with an indigenous voice so I was trying to find indigenous artists who had strong indigenous voices. And through that performance art class, I was able to hone in on James Luna's work. James Luna is a Luiseño out of California and I studied his work. He became really famous [through] a piece called Artifact where he put himself on display--he museumized himself--and I thought it was genius…. A year later, I was working at the Indian Museum and I won a mentorship with the Ford Foundation which was funding James Luna going to the Venice Biennale. I got to go to Venice with James, I spent two weeks with him in Italy at the Biennale, and eventually he pulled me into his performance pieces, so there are photos of me in his performance piece at the Biennale. That was sort of the my big "aha" moment because I was working at the museum in visitor services, which is a group of Indians on the floor, docents and that kind of thing, that are ushering and answering questions and pointing people to the bathroom, you know things like that. I had been doing that with the hope of working in their publications department and then I went to Venice and I came back and I was like, what the hell am I doing? I talked to [Luna] and I spent a lot of time with him and I saw the intricacies of what he was doing. It was an installation, it was site-specific, he had different characters, he was making different statements with these characters, he was interacting with the people, people were reacting to him. It was just all enveloping and when it was over, I just remember the energy of it just breaking me down, it was just so overwhelming.

It was at that point that I realized that this piece, The Last American Indian on Earth, would be possible. I’d conceived it in college, but just kind of let it go. It was through working with James that I was able to bring it back, and then I talked to James about it and was kind of adding on to it, and so I built on it for probably 11 or twelve years.  And it wasn't until last year, it would've been last winter, I said to my wife, "Sitting around waiting for opportunities is sort of a waste of time, and if I'm going to do something, I have to do something, so let's just do something." And she was like, "Okay, what do you want to do?" So I went through my old notebooks and stuff and I found this Last American Indian on Earth and I thought about James and I thought about performance art, and I thought about the power of controlling your content literally in front of people, and [how] it's pretty much anything I can make it. One day I could just be walking [wearing the regalia] and not respond to anybody, the next day I could be in somebody's face, and so it allowed all of these things. I also knew that it would have consumption value, online value, everything from social media down to Huffington Post or the Washington Post wanting to consume it and write about it. And I knew that it could possibly be something to give me at least ground for a career as an indigenous artist. Because it speaks to identity, and stereotype, and talks about being Indian in [different parts of the country.] I mean I went to DC, I went to New York, I went to Portland, Oregon, I went to Santa Fe… And so the genesis, long story short: college, James Luna, and then kind of just morphing into the need to create something that would be larger than me, and I think it is bigger than me. 

NEA: Can you something about the role of humor in your work? 

DEAL: With indigenous content, there's a lot of really heavy stuff. It's really difficult to blindside somebody with the subject of genocide and have them be like "Awesome, let's engage the conversation of genocide!" and it's easier to have something humorous that helps approach it a little bit better. Not that I've figured out how to find anything funny in genocide, but as an example, having something humorous is important. Stereotypes are really damaging and they're really horrible, and I can't even tell you how many times I've had this conversation with my daughter about these things…. Because that stuff is so damaging, it means it's going to be really heavy, and it means that non-Indians, and particularly white people, get really defensive when you bring it up. There’s a big issue in Indian country around Shamanism, which is basically non-Indians taking on the sort of spiritualism, religion, whatever you want to call it, of indigenous people, and using it and consuming it in a way that's inappropriate. So when I created the sign [as part of a performance piece] that says "My spirit animal is white guilt," it was about that.  So, spirit animal, or Indian names even, often exist within the sort of pop culture/indigenous vernacular. I have friends that always are like "Can you give me an Indian name?" you know, stuff like that.  So, my spirit animal of white guilt plays on that because anybody who is steeped in romanticism of Indians or even Shamanism, they understand the concept of spirit animal. And I'm just making fun of it to no end, and most white people laugh at that…. Humor is also a way for me, and I think most indigenous people, to cope. It's easier to cope with something if I can make fun of it. Sometimes diving into this stuff that's really deep and really difficult, you know. Sometimes going out and doing The Last American Indian on Earth is so emotionally, and physically, and mentally taxing, that the humor helps me cope with the seriousness of it, even though it's only partly serious. If you can say the words "white guilt" to a white person in a way that makes them laugh, I think you're winning, and still being able to make the point. 

NEA: One of the things I find really interesting about your practice is that it's a visual practice but language is also very important to you, as you can see in your letterpress work and paintings. I'm interested in the fact that in conversation you use the word indigenous, you don't say Native American, which is what I think most of us are used to hearing. But then in the performance piece, you use the term American Indian.  Can you talk about language and identity in your art practice?

DEAL: Well, American Indian is understood in America as being an indigenous person. The National Museum of the American Indian is there specifically because before there was “Native American,” before there was “indigenous,” it was “American Indian.”  And so, George Gustav Heye, who originated the collections for the Smithsonian's Indian Museum opened in New York and that's just what they've always had, and the name that they carried. And so, in my mind it's always been a part of America in a way that Americans can understand exactly, they know exactly what I'm talking about when I say that. Now, the movement of political correctness would say Native American, which is really interesting. I was talking to my cousin, my Paiute cousin, we were talking about Gangs in New York, Martin Scorsese's film, and that there is an actual group called Native Americans, and they're a group of immigrants, violent immigrants… so there's actually a deep rooted history of the term Native American, which I think is really interesting when you start to talk about language, and who's Native American and who isn't and all that other stuff.  But we're not Indians because that's a mistake.  And so, for the purposes of the performance piece, which is based on a stereotype, American Indian seems appropriate to me. But in terms of talking about ourselves as a group of people… indigenous is inclusive to the first peoples of this continent. Now as far as preferences, I don't really care. I believe that it's all about delivery. If you call me a dirty Indian, I think that's just as offensive as calling me a dirty indigenous person of the North American continent. I actually think indigenous sounds more academic, which in turn sounds smarter, which sounds like I'm thinking this stuff through. And I know that sounds really strange, but on some level I believe that people need to look at me not as an Indian person that's talking about this crap, but as somebody who's thinking pretty heavily about this stuff and the ins and outs. And when I post something, when I say something, I'm thinking about everything. I'm thinking about how the negative people are going to react, how the positive people are going to react, how it might be consumed, how it might be re-posted, how it might be internalized, how it might be used in the future… because that's just how my head works.  So yeah, language is important but it's also mine to wield however I want.

NEA: My final question is a fill-in-the-blank.  Simply complete the sentence: "Art matters because.." 

DEAL: Art matters because it informs our world. Be it in graphic design, fine art painting, murals; it will state the state of things, whether we see it or not. I like to think of art and how much power art has with this little story about George Bush announcing the invasion of Iraq, which he did at the United Nations (UN) building. And on the stage of the UN building where he's at, directly behind that is Picasso's Guernica, which is a very volatile painting of i's time about war, and about the aspects of war that are just horrific. And before they made that announcement about going into Iraq, they covered that painting up with a sheet so that he could make that statement. To me, that's power in art. They covered that because they're afraid of what that painting says in relation to this announcement, that the entire world by all intents and purposes moaned at, they just kind of took a deep sigh, like "Oh my gosh, here we go."  And I think that there's power in art, politically, socially, culturally. And so I think art is power.  



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