Duane Slick’s painting An Actuarial Space (2021) and multiple silkscreen prints of coyote portraits (2022) anchor the exhibit The Exploding Native Inevitable at Bates College Museum this winter in Lewiston. With his work being exhibited in Maine, I had a chance to speak with the painter, printmaker, and Rhode Island School of Design professor. My discussion of his work reflects that conversation and also expresses my own thoughts about Slick’s art.

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Duane Slick, Coyote’s Blue Bangs, silkscreen on paper, 14 x 11 in., 2018.

The artist’s work brings forward layer on layer of substance, image, and meaning. The painting is additive, built of layers like secret shelves, while Slick’s coyote portraits are created by casting shadows from a coyote head that Slick bought long ago at a craft fair (it is not an artifact of a beheaded coyote but a folk mask). In casting multiple shadows from the coyote head and casing these shadows as colored layers in silkscreen prints, Slick creates a surreal and oneiric series where the animal hovers between recognizability as an animal and also gains presence as an articulated speaker (through visual codes) that seems to holographically peer into three-dimensional space. Rather than set placidly on the gallery wall, the coyotes speak to us in their hallucinatory three-dimensional multicolor layers. Slick notes that he has been creating coyote-inspired artwork for three decades, ever since as a young artist-in-residence in Provincetown he learned of the return of the coy-wolf to the northeast. The coy-wolf is an invigorated species, resulting from interbreeding of coyotes and wolves. It is larger than coyotes and will howl in typical wolf patterns of sound, culminating in coyote yips.

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Duane Slick, Mizz-Zoo the Epic Coyote from Missoula, silkscreen on paper, 14 x 11 in., 2018.

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Duane Slick, Pink Marbled Coyote, silkscreen on paper, 30 x 22 in., 2022.

Slick’s interest in the coy-wolf stems in part from his identity as a Native American man. The artist is Ho-Chunk (on his mother’s side) and Meskwaki (on his father’s side). The unacknowledged unconscious of the United States is our national origin history of committing genocide and calling it land discovery and manifest destiny. It’s fair to say that no one is quite as intently aware of this buried psychic reality as are descendants of the survivors of that genocide. Slick’s attraction to the coy-wolf is that as an invigorated species returning to an area from which it had been eradicated, the coy-wolf becomes a supple and forceful metaphor for Indigenous American resurgence. The coyotes that peer at us in the gallery at Bates, that interrogate the sanitized and moneyed white space into which they are placed, represent and also enact a sly and subtle force of return.

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Duane Slick (American (Meskwaki/Ho-Chunk), b. 1961 in Waterloo, Iowa), An Actuarial Space II, acrylic on linen 42 x 60 in., 2022.

Slick’s painting An Actuarial Space emerges from an encounter the artist had with another museum (the Haffenreffer at Brown University) wherein he found a hoard of Indigenous American artifacts haphazardly stashed on shelves, taken entirely out of the context in which they were created and traditionally used. The calmly unsettling painting that emerges from this encounter is a layer painting, not a subtractive painting. Each added layer of thick white paint creates a feeling of mortuarial intensity, white shelf on white shelf, an effect strengthened by the artist’s interspersion of a few intricately painted weeds and coyote skulls. America, as the nation has been shaped by white settler capitalism, becomes itself a vast mortuary of actuarial space where the vivid presence of Indigenous life becomes trapped. The painting is so subtle in its activist force, it requires time to get the effect. The painting is also beautiful and calm. I needed to stand next to it during the exhibit opening celebration event because it created the only space in the museum where celebrants were not crowding together drinking. The painting creates this space around itself because of the way that it looks. Standing next to the painting for most of the opening event, I began to get a sense of how it functions as a portrait of America, a dead white zone of actuarial frieze.

The painting also references a striking dream the artist’s father experienced while severely ill, a dream in which those objects that we might categorize as tying us to the everyday—newspapers and money—began to vanish from his hands even as he held them. This sense of the vanishing that becomes present again is palpable in the painting. It is also an element in the coyote portraits, filled as they are with gaps. These hollow spaces create the feeling that the coyotes are opening their mouths to address us, turning through speech towards us. The artist’s maternal ancestry, Ho-Chunk, can be translated roughly as people of the sacred voice, or people of the voice. The layered effect of the work emerges from their subtle invocation of coy-wolf as trickster and creative demiurge, simultaneous with their deployment of coyote as an image recognizable to nearly anyone who inhabits or has inhabited the United States.

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Duane Slick, Purposeful Coyote, acrylic on panel, 14 x 11 in., 2020.

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Duane Slick, A Trickster’s Schematic, acrylic on panel, 14 x 11 in., 2020.

The work, in its surreal force, may be understood as influenced by the surrealist movement. And yet, his coyote portraits and paintings at once draw from and move beyond key tenets of surrealism. Surrealism, with the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, it is important to note, was initially a political movement, responding to the horrors of World War I and objecting to what André Breton saw as the collapse of Western civilization due to internal failures and failings intrinsic to Western culture. One might say Surrealism is an early proto-version of decolonial theory: break apart the empire, tear it down, recognize its culpability and corruption. 1924 notably is also the year that Indigenous Americans were granted citizenship by the United States. The admission of Native Americans as United States citizens was signed into law in large part because of the overwhelmingly significant demographic of Indigenous men who fought for the United States in World War I. Even now, Indigenous Americans, men, women, and trans, are per capita the highest represented group in the United States armed forces. Duane Slick’s father was a decorated veteran who served in Korea. This sense of fighting for America is also part of Slick’s art. The deep critique of the brutal recesses of our American psyche that his art offers can be curative if we pay proper attention.

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Duane Slick, There Are No Endings, acrylic on panel, 14 x 11 in., 2019.

All images: courtesy of the artist, copyright Duane Slick 2024.


Image at top: Duane Slick, Disagreeable Coyote #3, silkscreen on paper, 14 x 11 in., 2018.