Mateo Romero discusses artwork and influence of Earl Biss

Earl Biss is my favorite artist. All-time favorite. Van Gogh is No. 2. I first came across Earl Biss art at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, FL in 2019.

I was astonished at first sight. I’d never been so emotionally engaged, so spiritually captivated by a piece of artwork as I was by his massive Magic Thunder in the Northern Sky. I could feel Earl Biss attempting to communicate with me from the great beyond. I’d never felt anything like this in front of a painting before. I saw the future and the past.

Earl Biss, Magic Thunder in the Northern Sky. The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.
Earl Biss, Magic Thunder in the Northern Sky. The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.

Seeing this painting set me on a course to learn more about Earl Biss. I came across his biography, “The Spirit Who Walks Among His People,” written by Lisa Gerstner. She has become a friend. I’ve watched her documentary film of the same name.

Earl Biss (1947-1998, Apsáalooke) was a visionary painter. A brilliant colorist. A genius. He could paint with either hand. Simultaneously. In different colors on different images. Legendary stories of him painting for 24-plus hours straight on the eve of gallery show openings are commonplace throughout Aspen, Vail and Santa Fe where he was represented. So are stories of his carousing, his numerous wives, his penchant for blowing through money. His generosity. His unbridled soul.

When creating this website and transitioning my career to arts writing from sports media, highlighting the work of Native American artists was a primary objective. “Finding” Earl Biss gave me an additional banner to carry, a specific artist to champion.

For all of his talent, Earl Biss art is rare to find in museum collections. The James has several. The Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa has a great one. Others are in museum collections, but rarely on view.

Earl Biss, Riders in the Storm. Gilcrease Museum.
Earl Biss, Riders in the Storm. Gilcrease Museum.

Galerie Zuger in Santa Fe has the finest selection, Gib Singleton Gallery in Vail and C. Anthony Gallery in Beaver Creek also have excellent examples of Earl Biss paintings and prints for sale.

Earl Biss, 'Four Chiefs, a Dog and a Boy,' (1983). Oil on canvas, 60x84.
Earl Biss, ‘Four Chiefs, a Dog and a Boy,’ (1983). Oil on canvas, 60×84.

In my work, I’m fortunate to talk regularly with contemporary Native American artists. In about half of those conversations, Earl Biss’ name comes up as an inspiration as it did when I was talking to Mateo Romero (Cochiti Pueblo). Romero is one of my favorite painters working today and a highly in-demand artist.

Romero listed Earl Biss as one of his primary influences. What follows is Mateo Romero’s comments on Earl Biss as a painter and why Earl Biss artworks aren’t more commonly seen in museum settings.

“His color. His surfaces were beautiful.

The work’s uneven, I’ll say that, but when he really gets in there – the surface and the temperature and the wet-to-wet kind of feel of it, the atmosphere, the softness of it, the color, the texture, the clouds, this almost kind of like Braille or something in the clouds – it’s extraordinary.

I don’t think people gave him his due because he didn’t necessarily have ideas embedded in the work. Curators from museum collections are very self-consciously looking for this Native – they want written words now, that’s really big. You have to have text. It’s like a Jenny Holzer vibe from the 1980s in New York, you have to be writing stuff. I think painters and people that appreciate color and painting, love his stuff.

I think that there’s a very self-conscious agenda on the side of these curators to have work which is very self-consciously Native. It’s very didactic. It’s what white curators cull out of Native communities that titillates white audiences at the Whitney or The Met or someplace like that. It’s not intrinsically Native curation, it’s colonial curation.

I think (Earl Biss artwork is) so interesting because it doesn’t have this gag going on. It doesn’t have this easy, lazy kind of authorship going on. It doesn’t crutch on something like frybread or powwow car or one-eyed Ford or something like that. I think because it’s not minimal, it’s maximal, it’s expressionist; I love that stuff.”

As do I.

Earl Biss, Magic Thunder in the Northern Sky, detail.
Earl Biss, Magic Thunder in the Northern Sky, detail, at James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.

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