The three artists, David Bradley, Richard Ray Whitman and Nikki S. Lee, produce images that depict traditional minorities in situations that somehow draw them into the main stream culture created primarily by Americans of European descent. In their respective works Native American Gothic, States of Pervasive Indifference, and The Hispanic Project, they do this through several means.
These range from placing their subjects in universal contexts to comparing them with subjects of traditional European American art. However each artist chooses to depict the persons represented in his or her art, the effect is a complex blend of tension and harmony, as representatives of races that have sometimes in the past had uneasy relations seek unity and resolution.
The traditional racial tensions are represented most strongly in the strategies of Bradley and Whitman, who both depict Native American Indians. In fact, both painters place these Native Americans as the sole subject of the paintings, yet each manages subtly to allude to their conflict with the white race through symbolism—that is, by using a symbol that represents the entire European American race. Bradley’s American Indian Gothic identifies a Native American couple wearing the clothes of the European American.
Bradley uses this strategy to show an attempt by the Indians to conform to a society that has been imposed upon them. Yet the Natives retain their spears and their tepee, implying an unwillingness to let go of their lifestyle. Likewise, Whitman’s States of Pervasive Indifference shows a Native American wrapped in an American Flag. This underlines (or perhaps mocks) the idea of the melting pot as the Native American often finds himself marginalized by society—an idea which is in direct contrast to the picture of the American flag cradling this Indian.
Despite the notes of tension, David Bradley’s American Indian Gothic also shows a strong reference to the similarities of the European and Native Americans through his parody of Grant Wood’s American Gothic (Hughes, 2005). The similarities between the two paintings identify fundamental similarities in humans regardless of their cultural origins. They all have need of food, protection, and shelter—as shown by the house/tepee and the spear/fork. This too is identified in Whitman’s photograph States of Pervasive Indifference on which is clearly printed the words, “earth, air, water, fire”—elements on which all people depend.
Nikki S. Lee’s work can also be brought in here, as in her work The Hispanic Project a group of teenage girls is seen experiencing and doing (it would seem) the things that are typical of their age. The girls’ attitudes are universal and they could easily have been a group of European Americans. Yet they are Hispanic—except, one Asian girl (Lee herself) is in the mix, and blends so well that her cultural and ethnic difference from the rest of the group is almost obscured (Sagrans). In this way The Hispanic Project, like American Indian Gothic and States of Pervasive Indifference, identifies the common traits of the members of the human race, highlighting the multicultural harmony of the United States.
In an interview, Whitman speaks about his project States of Pervasive Indifference: “In indigenous cultures we’re not only concerned with human to human relationships, but also our relationship with the environment” (Abbott). Interest in one’s relationship to the environment has been sparked across the United States in recent decades, and this identifies a ground on which the several cultures of the United States have merged. The “human to human” relationships of which Whitman speaks is also evident in the strategies of The Hispanic Project, in which teenagers are having fun with each other, and their racial and cultural differences melt into the background.
Human relationships that exist across racial and cultural lines are also depicted in the strategies of American Indian Gothic, as the love and marriage between the man and his wife are clearly identified to exist within the Native American society independently of influence of the Europeans. The similarity of humans despite their difference in culture is highlighted in these works.
Abbott, Larry. “Richard Ray Whitman.” A Time of Visions: Interviews by Larry Abbott. http://www.britesites.com/native_artist_interviews/rwhitman.htm
Hughes, Collin. “Crossing Boundaries.” Washington State University. WSU. 2005. http://www.wsu.edu/~hughesc/crossing_boundaries.html
Sagrans, Erica. “Portrait of an Assimilitarist.” UTNE: A Different Read on Life. Understanding the Next Evolution, 2002.