Commentary | Billy Schenck

April 29, 2022
Commentary | Billy Schenck

We appreciate the patience and support we have received from our friends during this controversial time.  We understand that for many our reactions have not been swift enough.  We wanted to evolve and seek understanding from our community, our artists and the artist creating the work in this controversial and complicated situation.  After a twenty year relationship with Billy Schenck, and considering the impact and power his images have, we have decided to pause our representation of Billy Schenck.  We are taking this break with all his work to understand the depth and breadth of the effect his imagery has with our community.  We are reviewing all aspects of his work to decide if any is appropriate for representation by Modern West.  We regard and have appreciated our long-standing relationship with Billy.  We consider him a friend.  We are hopeful that this experience will change all of us for the better, with more empathy and understanding.   We are hopeful that Billy’s journey will continue with heightened awareness and sensitivity with new eyes towards his art process and narratives.   It has certainly enlightened our perspective, and we acknowledge the negative and harmful impact to our indigenous populations that Billy’s caption work created, even though that was not the intent of the artist.  We also acknowledge that the lack of curation with Billy’s last show was a huge mistake on our part.  Certainly the correct curation would have provided us with the insight needed to see how the work does not align with our community standards, nor the standards of the gallery.

 

Diane Stewart

Shalee Cooper

 


 

 

We believe art is an important means in facilitating social change and deeper understanding, and we value your opinions. In light of recent feedback on social media regarding Modern West‘s representation of Billy Schenck’s caption paintings, and his book Navajo Wars, we have been reviewing our positions on appropriation and impact to under-represented populations, especially Indigenous Peoples.

 

Thank you for all of your feedback we welcome any questions and  are reviewing your comments. If you would like to add anything further please email us at info@modernwestfineart.com 

 

 

LINK TO BILLY SCHENCK'S ARTIST WEBSITE

Comments

Modern West has framed the conversation about Billy Schenck’s work as an issue of censorship. While I agree that Schenck himself ought to have a fundamental right to assay certain ideas in his artistic expression, Modern West has failed to allow Schenck to fail in this endeavor. That is, Modern West missed an opportunity to reject this series in service of not only of helping build a more equitable community apropos of the archetypes and bodies Schenck depicts, but it has failed, too, to proffer Schenck a cultural boundary. By offering such a boundary as curators, the gallery could have allowed Schenck to learn from this problematic work at an earlier stage and grow his vision into work that expresses his ideas in a more profound and impactful manner.

In light of Modern West’s position as an arbiter of what kind of art holds cachet within the visual art world, the gallery’s deployment of “censorship” belies their curatorial shortcomings. If we were to apply the idea of censorship in the same way Modern West has for this issue, we could say that the gallery “censors” all the time. They select certain work that they show, and don’t show other work. But we don’t cast this onus of curation as “censorship.” In this regard, the idea of censorship is a facile characterization. Simply, Modern West chose work that—while with good intentions to deconstruct Western and settler hegemony—communicates its ideas in a way that reads as caricature.

I don’t doubt the sense of irony that Schenck intended with this work. The pastiche of pop art and the cheeky speech bubbles from its cowboy and cowgirl characters are clearly meant to pronounce the hypocrisy of settler culture and its consequent displacement of and violence toward Indigenous peoples. By the same token, however, the visual language of Schenck’s series inherently fails to extricate his position of privilege within this conversation. Although Schenck has attempted to side with oppressed, suppressed, and repressed peoples here, his work doesn’t go far enough to relinquish his complicity within the West’s cultural hegemony.

Others have pointed out both Schenck’s stereotypical depiction of Indigenous women and his rendering of these women’s bodies vis-à-vis the male gaze. Further, Schenck’s sense of aforementioned irony comes vastly short of deconstructing the source of these depictions. There are no signposts in the work that suggest that it’s exposing neither the beholder of the settler’s idea of what an Indigenous woman looks like nor a patriarch’s projection of the “ideal woman’s body” onto Indigenous women. His ironic speech bubbles hereby come across as mocking, since they accompany these fraught Western depictions of women.

Given this lack of decolonizing this work’s depiction thereof, Schenck’s attempt to critique Western hegemony falls flat. Instead, the pop art–style commentary comes across as a diminishment of the very issues it vies to engage. That’s also nothing to say of the rhetorical reality of the situation. Maybe this kind of flippant approach to the issue Schenck’s work attempts to address would have elicited its intended response in the aughts—whether it would have been right or ethical then, I don’t know. But today, Schenck’s rhetorical ethos as a white man cannot and will not port over into a place authority to speak to this topic without—at the very least—a critique of his own sociocultural position within this conversation.

So while Schenck’s approach of irony as a method of critique is salient enough for some to observe what it’s trying but failing to do, the work’s overall matrix of power perpetuates that its position of whiteness and maleness endows this work to filter which aspects of the conversation may or may not be discussed. With all this in tow, Modern West seems to have missed this dynamic. And now that we’re at this point of the work’s discussion within the public sphere, the overall tenor of how Modern West has framed this conversation feels rigid and defensive.

This defensiveness takes root in the gallery’s view of taking Schenck’s work down as being “censorship.” I don’t think anybody denies that Schenck’s primordial ideas for this work were intended to stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. Hence, nobody is looking to “censor” Schenck’s ideas thereof. The overall goal is to invite Schenck and his ideas into the discourse with more effective modes of expression.

What people would like to see from Modern West, however, is to finish their job as curators. That is, Modern West ought to take accountability for not identifying that Schenck’s execution of his ideas is not up to par in this series. For a gallery that’s looking to use their capital and influence to advance marginalized artists, the public needs Modern West to be more discerning and judicious about how material artworks articulate positions within a sensitive and ever-evolving conversation.

In this situation, that means ending the gallery’s display of this series from Schenck.

In doing so, Modern West will be able to honor Schenck’s message more so by signaling that the work is incomplete, that Schenck needs to take a different route in order for his work to, hopefully, grow to the point where it can communicate its intended critique of Western hegemony with efficacy and—crucially—accountability. The gallery, moreover, needs for their selection of artworks to correspond with their progressive messaging. Progressivism is like a wheel, one which needs to be trued. Without flexibility, this gallery’s wheel resists being trued, resists progressing upon the veritable path it wishes to traverse.

In addition, the placement of this public commentary page isn’t findable on Modern West’s website. The organization isn’t inviting public comment; this page exists solely for those who’ve raised complaints. These optics not only evince the gallery’s defensive position on this matter at the time of writing this comment, but also signal a resistance to change in order to achieve Modern West’s progressive goals. It says, “Why should this conversation be an intrinsic part of who the gallery is at this moment?” But this is a dominant factor of how Modern West may constitute their identity vis-à-vis the art community they want to serve. Without that relationship, Modern West risks lapsing to their audience being the anachronistic all-white cast that the art world has fought hard to diffuse.

Ironically, this PR debacle delegitimizes Schenck’s intended message—as ineffective, clumsy, and antiquated as its execution may be. It creates an effect of foregrounded whiteness. It leads to filtering out the contemporary rhetorical needs of a diverse audience. In this way, does Modern West make Schenck’s intended message moot due to enabling the problematic incoherence of this series’ execution? I believe it does.

Ultimately, progressive goals require work and receptiveness—no one stop is the final destination. I believe that Modern West can be flexible, can true its wheel. In service of both Modern West’s community—from patrons to artists—and Billy Schenck, Modern West has an opportunity to grow from failure. This path starts by admitting that they came up short in their role as curators, whereby work that slipped by doesn’t have the sociocultural effect it purports. And the action that legitimizes this admission is to take down Schenck’s work, a faulty offering to the public.

Alexander Ortega
15 May 2022

I wanted to leave my comments here as I find many of the works of this artist to be deeply offensive as many others have also expressed. I feel it is important to listen to the community voices and make ethical decisions accordingly. How can we affect positive change? Starting a conversation and receiving feedback is an important first step. I believe supporting, displaying and profiting off of an artist making this traumatizing work is perpetuating harm. Listening is a first step and action is the next step.

Brittany Reese
14 May 2022

As an art historian and educator, a significant amount of my pedagogical energy goes into the work of helping students at a majority white institution (the University of Utah) recognize and begin to untangle the ugly mess of stereotype, racism and misogyny built into their historical and contemporary visual culture. The decision of a respected and influential gallery to represent an artist like Schneck makes my job harder. It tells aspiring artists, art historians, educators and future leaders that as far as representation goes, it is ok to look no further than the same old colonial narratives. It tells my white students that they don't need to do the work of listening to or learning from their indigenous neighbors. Instead, they can fill up on trite and unchallenging imagery recycled from the pit of racist mid-20th century oaters, imagery made acceptable by the application of a thin veneer of irony. It tells my students of color—and particularly indigenous students—that their voices are irrelevant, that those in positions of authority will always place the pleasures and preferences of the colonizer ahead of the voices and lives of the colonized.
Beyond my pedagogical concerns, I have to say that I am personally so, so tired of the uncritical and cavalier use of women's bodies—especially the bodies of women of color—as engines of profit for men. I believe that we can do better.

Sarah Hollenberg
14 May 2022

It is past time for listening and "engaging in dialogue" as you put it - it's time to actually do something about racism in the art world. Continuing to represent Billy Schenck reflects an inability to actually be a gallery committed to the values it supposedly purports. I agree with many of the comments here shared before me that call on you to remove his art and issue reparations to the Indigenous community, on whose lands you conduct your business on. I sincerely hope the comments here go beyond a mere collection of feedback, and lead to actual change of policies to determine who you represent going forward.

brinley froelich
14 May 2022

Personally, I prefer the figurative work of George Condo and Anna Wayent. To each his own.

Julie Dunker
13 May 2022

As a white person who is deeply saddened by and struggles with the way white supremacy has been used as a tool to marginalize, disenfranchise and obliterate Native and Indigenous RELATIVES I find Schenck's work to be deeply offensive. Modern West do the the right thing and cut ties with Billy Schenck.

Laura Sharp Wilson
13 May 2022

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