Douglas Miles doesn't need your praise.
The artist, who's affiliated with the Apache and Akimel O'odham tribes and hails from the San Carlos Apache reservation just east of Globe, seeks to reinvent contemporary Native American iconography, challenging mainstream imagery associated with the native experience. It's no small feat, to be sure. But as much as his art has the power to shift outside perspectives of native culture, he works first and foremost from a desire to empower native peoples. In 2002, Miles founded Apache Skateboards, where he builds and designs skate gear, with a similar goal in mind: to inspire local youth on the reservation.
His latest show, currently on view at MonOrchid in downtown Phoenix, offers a survey of the artwork he has created both with Apache Skateboards and as an individual over the past 25 years. The retrospective "APACHE X: 10 Years of Douglas Miles & Apache Skateboards," put together by MonOrchid's assistant curator Nicole Royse, brings together a wide variety of pop-art-style stencil work and paintings from the artist, who leaves his mark on skateboards, found objects, walls, and the occasional canvas.
I went into the exhibition feeling skeptical. This isn't the first time I've encountered a collection of Miles' work billed as a retrospective -- Por Vida Gallery hosted a similar show under the title "Apacheria" in March 2012. Some of the same artwork from that exhibition is included in "APACHE X" but it's been given a second life in spacious MonOrchid. The gallery is a perfect fit for the show and not just because that curved wall that sits between MonOrchid and Songbird Coffee is reminiscent of a skate ramp (though that certainly doesn't hurt).
Miles' work on found objects looks right at home in the architecturally raw space. The painted 3-D objects -- including old luggage, oil cans, and a car hood -- break up the cavernous room nicely, while showcasing the artist's proclivity to work in non-traditional methods.
The gallery, owned by local art titan Wayne Rainey, has had what I will kindly call a spotty exhibition record over the past few years. But despite the long string of mediocre shows exhibited by MonOrchid in recent history, I still find myself coming back every month hoping the ideal space will have been put to good use for a change. The tall ceilings and exposed materials of the building are begging for large-scale contemporary work. With MonOrchid's location on Roosevelt, the gallery is perfectly poised to fill a particular void in the downtown arts scene. And with her first foray into solo curation for the gallery, Royse has impressively managed to do just that.
The clear star of the show is a mural Miles originally painted on the side of a mobile home that has been transported and installed on the southern-most wall in the gallery. In light of the difficulty of displaying the work of street artists and muralists in a traditional gallery, the decision to physically bring an existing mural into the space feels inspired. The piece Beautiful Struggle is a vibrantly colored close-up depiction of two faces staring firmly ahead. In a nice juxtaposition, there are two smaller canvas portraits on the middle wall just across the room that depict another couple from an earlier era staring back at the mural piece. The interaction of the work is nice on both a formal and content-based level.
Compared to the rest of the work in the exhibition, these portraits are rather tame. Much of the remaining pieces feature harsher imagery often including weaponry of some kind, but it's not just the overt use of guns that makes Miles's work hard to deal with. The art is predicated on making viewers confront the otherness of the native experience, which is bound to cause some degree of unease. When I first saw the show, I imagined MonOrchid filled with gaggles of wealthy white people fawning over this edgy work -- street art is "so in right now," you know. This imagined fetishization of the show made me sick.
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With his work, Miles manages to turn the tables, making viewers feel like 'the other' for a change. The artwork boldly asserts itself, with new iconographic native imagery by and for native people. And while it's not inconsequential that "APACHE X" is being shown in one of the biggest galleries downtown, it feels like the work is not necessarily mine to celebrate. Still, it might be the best kind of discomfort I've ever felt while looking at art. And it's definitely the best show I've seen at monOrchid in a long time.
"APACHE X: 10 Years of Douglas Miles & Apache Skateboards" will be on view through Monday, March 31. Catch the closing reception at MonOrchid on Third Friday, March 21, from 6 to 10 p.m. For more information about the exhibition, visit monorchid.com. To learn more about artist Douglas Miles, check out apacheskateboards.com.
Editor's note: This post has been modified from its original version to reflect that Miles is from the San Carlos Apache reservation just east of Globe, not the San Carlos Apache-Akimel O'odham reservation. He is affiliated with the Apache and Akimel O'odham tribes.