Gerald Clarke: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Lightwell Gallery, University of Oklahoma
By Michelle J. Lanteri
An artist and assistant professor of ethnic studies at University of California, Riverside, Gerald Clarke (Cahuilla) curated his solo exhibition as an intertribal crossroads, bringing visual signifiers together to question recent historical moments. This remembrance includes the creation of his installation at the Lightwell Gallery in the University of Oklahoma’s School of Visual Arts building. Named Out of Sight, Out of Mind, the show’s well-trodden title frames several of Clarke’s series critiquing the branding of people, places, and cultures in lands now known by many as the United States.
The artist provides a map of political warnings, overtly punctuated by a two-sided diamond-shaped road sign that references his home, the Cahuilla Indian Reservation, and articulates his Cahuilla perspective. As a whole, Clarke’s works enact a social field of traffic navigation, control, and inversion. Located in a space of higher learning, this exhibition steers the academic community towards studying a series of multimedia designations of Indigenous land and people, along with the implications and effects of cultural and legislative borders.
Through sculptures, prints, sounds, and videos, Clarke becomes a transgressive narrator of contested political moments, questioning the stewardship of place and identity. Firmly grounded in his Cahuilla worldview, the artist creates a visual play that reminds viewers of the power of words and images in both their presence and absence. For instance, a long wall displays a number of black-framed Branded series prints. The cultural impositions suggested by text and symbols seared onto white paper by steel branding posts are significant. These prints also recall contemporary artist Willie Cole’s figures on paper made by scorches from clothing irons—a tool Clarke has employed in his own practice.
In the Branded series, Clarke references the inception of mass media with the printing press, while addressing 21st-century politics and economies. The artist places singular words and text groups like “$$,” “Immigrant,” “Immigrant native,” and “native Amnesia native” on stark white backgrounds. The paper reveals the blankness of memory and conveys a “white” racial signifier. The deep burn on the malleable pulp reads as a series of forced, painful scars, recalling two centuries of continuing American desires to identify as “native” to the Western hemisphere. With Clarke as narrator, the branded words and symbols function as a portal for viewers to recognize these commoditization scars as relationally felt by all inhabitants of this land. Here, an interesting play on “United States” as national nomenclature emerges.
Revealing an integral layer of his process, Clarke placed his Steel Branding Irons (2017–19) at an off-center position near the framed works. Allowing these iron posts, as the artist’s narration devices, to serve as sculptures in their own right and connect the series of prints to the rest of the exhibition. The branding tools also function as a monument to Clarke’s family history in cattle ranching—a still extant business the artist manages. Positioning the irons near the center of the gallery, adjacent to the Cahuilla street sign, locates this space as being visualized through Clarke’s familial and cultural lived experiences.
Made in 2016, the yellow signpost functions as a traffic control device in this array of conflicted memories. One panel shows intersecting arrows pointing north, south, east, and west with the name Mukat printed vertically and horizontally in honor of the Cahuilla creator.  The other panel bears the Cahuilla word Panu’ul paired with an illustration of a Whipple’s yucca, Hesperoyucca whipplei, to show its meaning.  These representations honor the continuance of Cahuilla land, language, and life cycles. Yet, the presence of these concepts in the medium of a street sign filters this tribal specificity through standardized roadway navigation. The signpost embodies federal pressures of Indigenous conformity while also creating an art historical dialogue with The Treachery of Images (1928–29), a famous painting by René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967) that depicts a pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” or “This is not a pipe.”
But there exists a more overt allusion to “the pipe” in this exhibition. Clarke’s Leaks (2018) takes form as a corner-mounted pipeline in cash-colored green, stenciled with the words “EMPIRE PARTNERS ULTD.” A line of armed “Stormtrooper” figures symbolically defends the pipeline by standing atop it. The artist’s combination of text and image wields an ever-growing web of visual puns, hinging on the signification of state and county police’s inhumane actions against the Standing Rock water protectors. The small scale of the police compared to the large pipe underlines the servitude of law enforcement to a much larger ideological force that seeks to control the land. However, Clarke’s appropriation of the Star Wars character coupled with a headphone listening station implicates the divergent population within the Standing Rock occupation. A key installation component, the audio track includes Clarke and other people’s reflections on their experiences at Standing Rock. Clarke remembers the family-like community at the camp amid overwhelming drone surveillance, “hippies” enjoying the site like a festival, and a Native lyricist group’s song about “killing cops.” Other participants recall the love and healing shared at Standing Rock—and the police and security guards aiming guns at them from across the river. These memories lead to a consideration of what it means to be a Native person, or a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe whose homelands currently reside under the United States’ legislative umbrella—a political imposition that extends to all federally recognized tribal nations.
Clarke further grapples with signifiers of “authentic Native American” identity in a video context. In Antiques Road Show (2005) the artist puts himself on display, wearing eyeglasses, a bandana around his head, and a breechcloth at his waist.  At the artist’s imagined L.A. Redman Museum, a male appraiser assesses Clarke’s “value” for a white male collector—a performance that joins a conversation formalized by James Luna (Payómkawichum/Ipi [Luiseño/Digueño], 1950–2018) with his Artifact Piece (1987) at the San Diego Museum of Man. In a comedic interrogation of identity construction, Clarke’s parody confronts the inequity of assigning “Native” signifiers as measures of “authenticity.” The appraiser determines Clarke to be “clearly not an Indian” because of his lack of “menacing” aura and discrepancies between his appearance and institutional expectations. But perhaps this outcome results in a favorable incommensurability with an imposed label of “Indian,” because after all, Clarke is Cahuilla.
The exhibition’s title work, Out of Sight, Out of Mind (2019), shifts viewers’ attention to the concept of identity as known through voice. This installation features a recorded Cahuilla bird song—a melody of early migration and creation history—playing within an enclosed PVC-walled hexagon.  As Clarke explained, this peon, a gambling song, remembers Taquish, a Cahuilla immortal who committed evil acts and ate human souls. As a tribal council member who engages in Cahuilla bird singing, Clarke uses this sculpture to encourage audiences to closely listen to music as a vessel of history that shapes present-day identities. By refusing visual codes, he honors these songs as sites of Cahuilla cultural belonging. In closing, Gerald Clarke’s exhibition posed vital questions to audiences. The artist asked: Who are you, and where are you?
- Clifford E. Trafzer, Fighting Invisible Enemies: Health and Medical Transitions among Southern California Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), 32.
- Lowell John Bean, Mukat’s People: The Cahuilla Indians of Southern California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 42.
- Joanna O. Bigfeather, “Gerald Clarke: From a Place of Recognition,” in Diversity and Dialogue: The Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art, 2007, ed. James H. Nottage (Indianapolis: Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in association with University of Washington Press, 2008), 42–43.
- Gerald Clarke, email to the author, May 10, 2019. Clarke contributed all information about the Cahuilla Bird Song.