It would not be wholly accurate to say that Diné artist Shonto Begay rejects idyllic, romantic depictions of Native subjects — such as those that dominated painting of the 19th and early 20th centuries — in favor of showing harsher, more honest realities of contemporary reservation life. Begay brings Navajo history, autobiographical content, and social and political issues into his holistic vision, to be sure, but he also has an ecstatic reverence for nature, land, and people. Begay’s work reflects something of older painting styles, particularly social realism as seen in works by Thomas Hart Benton — some of whose pieces he first encountered as a child — and also of the paint treatment and palette of Oscar Berninghaus. Begay, a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts who began painting professionally in the early 1980s, avoids the Pop style that dominates, even today, much of the work of IAIA students. Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery presents an exhibit of new work by Begay, opening Indian Market weekend.
“I work in this manner that’s sort of my own neo-Impressionism and set in my own unconventional reality,” Begay told Pasatiempo. “I paint with an impressionistic sensibility. I think it derives from the whole idea of reciting the chants, the ancient prayers. Every syllable of every word is recited to maintain the beauty. So, each stroke, each line, each color, dot, and dash — to me, those are syllables to the holy words I grew up with. I grew up in the rhythm of late-night chants, songs, and of course, the creation of holy sand paintings. I think a lot of the vision is coming from that. It’s a very conscious application, a very conscious gesture.”
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