Monday, July 23, 2018

Buffalo and Trains: Deeling Gregory's Gigantomachia on the High Plains.

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 1*
On the high plains of Eastern Montana, images of buffalo emerge whichever way one turns.  Car dealerships and bars, stock brokerages and coffee roasters, sports teams and local banks, art galleries and t-shirt shops: the buffalo, or at least the image of the buffalo, is in evidence in all of these places and more.  Charles Russell, the great Montana painter, famously employed a buffalo skull as part of his signature on his artworks.  In doing so, he can be understood as insisting that all who remain here and now remember that buffalo had been here too.  In any event, the many ways of depicting buffalo - whether sketched out in a full-bodied side-view or frontal approach wth horns lowered, whether rendered as bleached skull or as tanned hide, or simply reduced to a silouhette  - is explored obsessively by a broad range of artists in these parts.  An infinite appetite for the image is seemingly at work

The hunger for the presence of the buffalo that these images communicate is all too often nostalgic.  The buffalo are welcomed as long as they remain safely in the past, a memory of other times, of a world that was destined to be superseded even if once remarkable in its own manner.  In this way, the iconifying of the Buffalo becomes nothing more than a re-inscription of what Australian anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose has termed "the Year Zero," a reordering of time by settlement peoples such that what has taken place before the arrival of European culture (and particularly in this case, European agriculture) is relegated to a legendary past that ceases to impinge too strongly on the moment in which one is currently living.  To remember the buffalo is fine, as long as they are not too near or too meaningful.

Railroad Poster**
But the imagery of Deeling Gregory's contribution to the public mural painted on the concrete walls of the First Avenue Railroad Underpass at Great Falls, Montana is another manner entirely.  To understand exactly how this is the case, it might be helpful to consider an image - supplied by an advertisement poster for a railroad - from the time when Buffalo were being wiped off the face of the earth with gleeful abandon by settlement culture.  In this picturing of that event, a steam engine plows through a herd of Buffalo running in panic before the onslaught of riflemen shooting at whatever moves on the prairie.

Deeling Gregory's Gigantomachia*
Gregory reinterprets this image as a Gigantomachia, in which two great forces are in battle with one another.  In her version, rather than simply fleeing the onslaught of settlement, the Buffalo, along with a white dove, oppose the steam engine as it ferociously invades the prairie.  In doing so members of the herd offer their very bodies in resistance, as they are crushed under the weight of the locomotive and ultimately paved over by railroad tracks.  Still they resist in spite of their defeat.  They do not assent to the imposition of the Year Zero, regardless of what riflemen and plows in the meantime might have accomplished.

What comes across in Gregory's portrait is entirely absent in the railroad poster: Buffalo, Gregory would remind us, were not dumb animals to be eagerly chased down and heedlessly slaughtered but august fellow creatures whose capacity to inspire and instruct us humans is not to be underestimated, let alone dismissed.  Particularly striking in this regard is how Gregory treats the individuality of each Buffalo in the herd she pictures.  Each visage is alive with sentiment as it submitted to ecocide.  Consider these images taken from the mural

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 2*
Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 3*

Feeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 4*

Feeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 5*

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 6

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 7*

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 8*
Those who might pause to meditate on these figures and their connection to the very location in which they are pictured will find provocative instruction on how settlement culture might reconsider its place in time.  The imposition of the Year Zero is not a fiat accompli.  Not only, it turns out, might the Buffalo one day return, but also in truth, they have never left.

* Images from the First Avenue North Underpass Mural are used with the permission of the Business Improvement District of Great Falls Montana.
** Railroad poster image taken from the interpretive materials provided at The First People's Buffalo Jump State Park near Great Falls, Montana.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Dr. Hatley. Instead of driving past this mural, next time I'm in town I will walk and really look at Deeling's amazing artwork.