In his career-long exploration of the coyote in Native American storytelling, painter Duane Slick often takes the image of a coyote head and obscures it. In the process, he explores the nature of representation itself. This is true of each of the 10 new paintings Slick is offering in his solo show, “Arias for a Coyote Opera,” at the Albert Merola Gallery in Provincetown from Friday, June 26, through Wednesday, July 15.
Slick is of Native American descent, a member of the Meskwaki Nation of Iowa through his father’s lineage. His mother is from the Ho-Chunk Nation in Nebraska. The coyote, he explains, is the archetypal “trickster character” in North American tribal folklore. It also has an unusual ecological history on the continent.
“The character is sort of illusive,” he says, “and the animal itself is what you call an ‘invigorated species’ — when it first had contact with Europeans, its numbers were decimated. But as an invigorated species, it came back and it adapted. The idea is that we can’t really get rid of them.”
Slick’s paintings will trick you at times. The coyote heads are often camouflaged in layers of paint: impasto mounds, black marks, lines, swirls, and shapes with hints of depth. They offer mere suggestion and shadow, abstract at certain angles before suddenly revealing coyote ears and jaw. Slick creates these outlines by tracing the shadow of a coyote papier-mâché mask, a folk-art object he bought in Mexico. He talks about this process as aiming to “activate” the mask, bringing it back to life from obscurity after Europeans had reduced it to a trinket for sale in a market. In this way, his paintings activate the coyote — as a storytelling symbol and flesh-and-blood species.
Slick is from Iowa, born in Waterloo and raised in Cedar Falls. After earning his B.F.A. from the University of Northern Iowa and his M.F.A. from the University of California, Davis, he was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown from 1990 to 1992. In those Provincetown years, he met Albert Merola and James Balla, who had just started the UFO gallery (predecessor to the Albert Merola Gallery). Since 1999, Slick has been at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, where he was appointed professor of painting in 2005.
Merola and Balla have represented Slick since the early ’90s, and this will be his ninth solo show at their gallery. “Coyote is trickster and hero,” Balla says in an email, “a magician and creative force — not exactly an alter ego, but rather the prime character in an epic story of life, death, and redemption.”
Stories, and the telling of history, are important to Slick. He talks about working from an “untraceable present,” where linear time is forgotten, as is any attempt to conform to a grand “master narrative.” In the paintings, too, history is rendered in hidden layers of paint. In some of them, a gray background proves, on closer inspection, not to be a background at all — just beneath it lies faded worlds of color.
One of the paintings in the show, Coyote’s Return, was chosen by artist Jay Critchley as the logo-image for this year’s Swim for Life & Paddler Flotilla. It depicts a coyote standing on the backs of two sea turtles. Around the edges are the silhouettes of clover flowers, which the artist traced from flowers he picked.
The title of the Merola Gallery show comes from the one large (50-by-40-inch) painting in the series, Aria for a Coyote Opera: Naming Your Predecessors, which itself takes inspiration from the Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach. Slick says he shows a segment of Glass’s five-hour work — the song “Spaceship” — to his students at RISD. He emphasizes the mesmerizing union of Glass’s music and Robert Wilson’s art direction and choreography: the performers moving in slow motion and the lighting. “I was thinking about that kind of spectacle,” he says. In the painting, a group of coyote head silhouettes are in a kind of mass, floating together in the center of the canvas, a coordinated performance.
The event: Exhibit of paintings by Duane Slick, “Arias for a Coyote Opera”
The time: Friday, June 26, through Wednesday, July 15; gallery open by appointment only, Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
The place: Albert Merola Gallery, 424 Commercial St., Provincetown, 508-487-4424
The cost: Free