I first met Yatika Starr Fields in 2016 at the Standing Rock reservation, which straddles the states of North and South Dakota, to witness what was the largest Native American protest action in a generation. There, I discovered the Oklahoma-based artist, who is part of the Cherokee, Mvskoke (Creek) and Osage nations and is continuing a family tradition of contemporary art and activism. His father was at the occupation of Alcatraz, and the Fields family also had friends at the 1973 occupation at Wounded Knee. This combination of art and lived political realities appears to have taught the younger artist to welcome the elision of life and art.
During an exhibition back in 2011, the artist’s father, photographer and artist Tom Fields, explained his own artistic philosophy: “To accurately portray Native people, one must understand the soul of what makes them persevere. For me, it’s being able to experience the depth of the culture, which is more than just artifacts, art, or dance; it’s the everyday movements of life such as the dinners, adoptions, naming, and family ceremonies.” That inclusive vocabulary seems at the core of the work of Yatika Starr Fields, and it’s a world view that he appears to share with his mother, Anita Fields, who works in textile and clay. She explains it in her own words this way: “The work I want to express comes from a multitude of places. It can be based on childhood memories, experiences, dreams, social issues, and everyday encounters.”
That more flexible attitude toward the material and products of art — one that rejects the categorization and stigmatization of various types of art and culture, based on what are often classist and racialized hierarchies — is clearly a part of the younger Fields’s artistic outlook. He combines traditional representational styles with dynamic and innovative contemporary ones, mixing freely and refusing to stylize or calcify his work into one thing. My experience with Fields’s work is often one of surprise at his unexpected directions.
While at Standing Rock, he painted a large wooden panel, for no other reason, as he explained to me, than feeling compelled to create something. The panel was later used by a family of water protectors as a door. When the family learned that Fields was created the piece, they burst into expressions of joy at meeting the artist and thanked him profusely for his gift to the community, which they were enjoying. Fields said he was content with where the work ended up, and felt no obligation to preserve it instead of letting it travel through a community he felt deeply connected to. He later showed me a banner he painted for Standing Rock, which echoed the protests’ popular “Water Is Life” slogan, as well as the symbol of the black snake (meant to represent the oil pipeline) being cut by a coup stick, which is often used to mark acts of bravery. Those two unusual works were my first exposure to his art, which prizes clarity in some instances, while in others it recedes into worlds of fantasy, whose density can seem overwhelming. That oscillation between legibility and cosmic chaos appears again in his current exhibition, Fear Not at Garth Greenan gallery in Manhattan.
In the bodies of work on display, Fields has revisited that tumultuous period of Standing Rock. For his Tent Metaphor series, he salvaged the tents destroyed in raids by the authorities and pipeline security teams. He turned forms that are clearly marked with their history into hanging geometric sculptures that evoke hides, carcasses, or even flags or pennants. These works are showcased like trophies symbolizing accomplishment, not remnants of a catastrophe or violent invasion. The paintings in the exhibition mostly focus on a more recent political history, the January 6 insurrection, highlighting the savagery of American settlers against not only Indigenous groups but even their own state when it questions what they perceive as their rights. In both bodies of work, Fields uses the forms and symbols of the Oklahoma flag and its associated Native American imagery to thread a connection between all that we see.
At the center of the Oklahoma flag is a circular Osage Nation buffalo-skin shield with seven eagle feathers set against a Choctaw blue sky; both images are from Indigenous groups that were forcibly removed and settled in what was once called Indian Territory before being renamed Oklahoma in 1890. Across the shield is a Plains-style ceremonial pipe and an olive branch: the former is meant to represent Native Americans, while the latter is an almost ironic symbol of European Americans who were, at the time of the flag’s creation, engaged in the active dispossession of Indigenous peoples. That symbol of statehood, as the artist has pointed out on Twitter (the video has since been taken down), was one of the first banners to enter the Capitol building when January 6 insurrectionists stormed it in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 US election. The symbolism was clear to Yatika Starr Fields, who saw a continuing cycle of violence that appropriates Native American imagery, while dismissing the sovereignty of various tribes and nations that were granted rights in treaties with the US government.
In “Osage Shield: Horizon, Tethered Nations” (2021), Fields has turned the Osage shield into a ball of energy, as the feathers hanging from the shield appear to swirl out of control. The olive branch has disappeared and the peace pipe is wrapped in barbed wire. In the background is a glowing cityscape at sunset; power lines crisscross above, slicing through the clarity of the sky. The pipeline protests are suggested in the power lines, which were built to quench the continuing thirst for more energy to fuel cities and industry across the United States. Fields turns to abstraction at the bottom of the work, as the fabric of the built world below is tumultuous and unstable. Is the central form trapped in the power lines? Is it transforming into something new?
The oil industry is directly referenced in one of the show’s largest paintings, “Untitled (Extraction)” (2021), through a pump jack shown in motion. The representation recalls the aesthetic strategies of early modernists such as the Futurist or Vorticists, who aimed to show action in stages, like stop-motion photography. Here, the oil-like black paint is more obvious, as jagged strokes streak through the bottom half as if Franz Kline was tagging a wall.
In her book Art for an Undivided Earth: The American Indian Movement [AIM] Generation (2017), Jessica L. Horton writes about the relationship between Native Americans and space, quoting Standing Rock Sioux scholar and activist Vine Deloria Jr., who theorized pan-Indian politics during the early years of AIM. Horton writes, “Indigenous people engage in what Deloria called spatial thinking, anchored in specific places either continuously inhabited or collectively remembered. More than an empty container for human activities, space refers to complex, reciprocal relationships between humans and other-than-human entities, including the land itself as a life-shaping force.” She explains how Deloria contrasts this with the European episteme, which privileges scientific knowledge: “Colonial societies grant primacy to progress, envisioning history as a teleological conquest of empty space by humans advancing through stages of civilization….”
This passage seems relevant to Fields’s art. While the forms are grounded in specific locations and things (Standing Rock, a flag, a landscape, the pump jack), they are not merely vessels of meaning, but rather seem transformed by everything around them. Forms float and move, but they don’t break free or out of their carefully organized space, all receding from the edge of the canvas and revealing something in the background. This brings up another aspect of many of the works on display, which is the centralized imagery in the paintings and the ubiquity of circles or circular motion. Is the Osage shield the basis of these forms? Do they represent something else? In “Tent Metaphor (Ellipse)” (2017), the salvaged tent hangs in the middle of a circular frame, with one flap outstretched beyond the circle, like an overambitious Vitruvian Man.
Last year, Fields explained to the Osage News why he chose to travel to Standing Rock in the first place: “There was an opportunity to go, not just as a spectator, but to be a believer for who we are as a people and to fight for our rights just like my ancestors did. It was very powerful.” His artworks reveal a similar engagement. They are not simply observations, or renderings in paint or nylon, but records and retellings of a history and present, and even imaginings of new futures. Horton mentions in her book that after the nightly news stopped broadcasting the AIM and its various occupations and actions, Native Americans “retreated” to marketplaces and museums, which was “perhaps their most enduring interface with a wider public since the nineteenth century.” In those spaces, the displacement of Native Americans continued, as objects were removed from their everyday contexts and fetishized in displays promising authoritative knowledge about “Indians.” Fields’s objects and images refuse to be didactic. The hanging Tent Metaphors, for instance, refuse to reveal their secrets. In that way, they are more akin to objects such as the Boli of the Bamana peoples of Mali or an icon in the Eastern Orthodox faith, which are symbols of great powers and knowledge. The objects are shards, like the remnants of a damaged clay pot.
The tents from the Oceti Sakowin campsite bring up larger conversations about the nature of “camps” and what they mean in his work. Camps have been transformed into sites of modernity, particularly into less-than-ideal manifestations, including sites for refugees, internment, occupation, and the like. Philosopher Giorgio Agamben has looked at the idea of the camp, the concentration camp, in particular, as the “nomos of the modern.” (Nomos is the ancient Greek word for law, but in sociology it is often seen as a habit or custom of social and political behavior.) Is Fields exploring the campsite as a reflection of modernity? Is the site, whether in the way Deloria or Agamben conceive of it, a place of contention where the artist is wrestling with all these facets? Does the camp, like the one at Oceti Sakowin, break with the modernist idea, much like the camp at Zuccotti Park (formerly Liberty Plaza Park), and herald a new type of space, one of new possibilities?
When I asked Fields at Standing Rock what he thought were some of the most powerful symbols and images to emerge around him, he explained: “I think it’s about force, it’s about breaking, that’s what I think it is. It’s about making the United States look at themselves and see what’s going on … it’s about standing up, breaking, separating, and unifying.”
Fields has assimilated the world around him into these paintings, which convey a sense of urgency and directness, while the sculptures step back into a space of contemplation and opacity. Between those extremes he situates his role as an artist and his own agency to wrestle with the built environment, both as an alien thing that mars the landscape and as a site for reinvention. He builds from his experience but refuses to express it as lessons.
In the gallery’s back room is a triptych by the artist, “Chasm of Hope” (2022), which he painted over the course of a few weeks in New York City. It mashes together the city’s Central Park horses, sewer grates, graffitied walls, Wall Street bull, and other oddities into a brash and colorful series of works that remind me of Max Beckmann’s most ambitious triptychs. Like Beckmann, Fields appears not only to be rendering the world through metaphor or symbols, but to be creating a new cosmology that feeds his art. Beckmann once said, “Art is creative for the sake of realization, not for amusement: for transfiguration, not for the sake of play. It is the quest of our self that drives us along the eternal and never-ending journey we must all make.” Like Beckmann, Fields doesn’t conflate art with entertainment. He also refuses to settle on what it is, preferring to open up to the possibility that our lived experiences will transform what we see, while acknowledging that the journeys we take are never alone, even if the through lines are sometimes hard to pinpoint.
Yatika Starr Fields’s Fear Not continues at Garth Greenan Gallery (545 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until March 12. The show was organized by the gallery.