Chris Pappan's pencil work, based on historical photographs of Native people, bear the markings of a skilled draftsman. In "Guardian Spirits," three figures are wrapped in blankets, shrouding the lower half of their faces. While Pappan precisely rendered the folds and wrinkles, the proportions are deliberately way off. In his composition, the figures are rail thin and inordinately tall.
That's one of the many ways they don't resemble traditional ledger art, the form that American tribes invented in the 1800s after paper was introduced as a medium to record stories and histories.
Pappan, who grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, and claims heritage from Osage, Kaw, Cheyenne River Sioux, and mixed European, originally didn't want to use Native American imagery at all in his work.
He was schooled in the history of ledger art as part of his studies at the prestigious Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. Afterward, he moved to Illinois to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
He was keenly interested in the styles of art in Juxtapoz Magazine, which promotes underground art that crosses between street art, illustration and galleries. Some of the illustrative tricks, such as warped visual perspectives, were metaphorically useful when he began making ledger art.
"It took on this meaning of people having distorted views of Native people, or being taught distorted views of Native people. It also refers to Native peoples' willingness to play into that distortion — to perpetuate the myths about us," he said in a phone interview.
Pappan, now 46 years old, was working at a gallery in Chicago when he came across an unused accounting ledger. At the time, he'd been searching for his voice, whether it used Native imagery or avoided it entirely. He'd begun painting self-described "lowbrow" art, in which he would depict Native women as anthropomorphic spirits, with a buffalo or deer head.
That blank accounting book triggered an "epiphany moment," he said. He thought he could adapt that style of drawing onto the ledgers and call it "21st Century Ledger Art." He hand-letters each piece with that label.
Pappan said there are some challenges with the physical constraints of the form: his compositions must be designed to fit on a set size of paper. Sometimes he uses the existing writing on the ledger to generate meaning, and other times he doesn't. Some are very explicit in their politics. "Indian Giver" has a reversed image — another of his favorite ways of manipulating his source photographs — of a man in a headdress and glasses. He drew it on a ledger sheet noting names and their accompanying debts.
He sources the photographs from a variety of sources: websites, old books, museums, antique shops and more. They're mostly from the 1800s up to the 1950s, and his reasons for choosing a specific image vary.
"I'll choose a photograph to work from because the person doesn't look so stereo-typically Native. He'll be wearing a turban or a beaver-pelt hat — something that's not always associated with the Plains style that is so prevalent in everyone's minds," he said.
He prefers working from portraits — another facet that differentiates his work from traditional ledger art, which depicted "military exploits and important acts of personal heroism," according to the Plains Indian Ledger Art Project, run by Ross Frank, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego.
There was a shift after the U.S. government forced the tribes to move onto reservations, when the artists "added scenes of ceremony and daily life from before the reservation to the repertoire of their artwork, reflecting the social and cultural changes brought by life on the reservation within the larger context of forced assimilation," according to a short introduction to the history of ledger art.
Pappan favors drawing photorealistic portraits, an aesthetic decision he described as a personal preference. He's interested in the ways he can "convey a narrative" without a sequence of action. "If I take an image and distort it and then put it in a different context, or I have different things going on around that person, it creates a different narrative. Again, that plays into how I am trying to change, or advance, the genre of ledger art," he said.
In "Atom Hearth Mother (Earth)," Pappan contrasts a mirrored, double-image portrait of a woman with a map of Arizona, cut into a patterned design and stamped with a drawing of a piece of construction equipment. The bottom is lined with a Pop-art like repeated image of a coyote in black, yellow, white and blue.
In the view of MAM curator Brandon Reintjes, "it's almost like he was playing on stereotypes to push past stereotypes." Some viewers at the MAM seem to take the drawings at face value if they don't pause for a closer examination. "They work on people very slowly," he said.
To Reintjes, one of the impressive aspects of Pappan's style is that he takes two older forms of expression: ledger art, which dates to the 1800s, and sketching with graphite, and combines them into "something that's a fully fledged contemporary expression." It's seemingly simple — but he "creates layers of complexity with it."
Reintjes said he's curious to see where Pappan's work heads within five to 10 years, adding that he's "poised to add to the conversation about contemporary Indian art."
"Guardian Spirits" hints at a future direction Pappan would like to pursue: larger-scale drawings, no longer inhibited by the size of a single piece of paper. For "Spirits," he arranged four sheets (two pages per sheet) in a vertical column, giving him space for those looming figures. He chose the photograph for the rich visual potential of the blankets' folds — it reminds him of a classical painting study and "how what's underneath is very subtly revealed through this texture," he said.
Another piece in the MAM exhibition, "Mind the Gap," points to a future direction and the history of ledger art at the same time. He left the drawing inside the original ledger book, which is dated at 1906. In the museum, it's arranged on a pedestal.
This way, he said it feels less like a drawing than a "historical object, or a relic." Ledger artists would keep their drawings in the books and carry them with them, so it gives viewers an idea of how they originally were kept.
He also wants to revisit the paintings, which push further into his lowbrow roots.
"I haven't done as much painting lately but I hope to get back to that real soon," he said. "Everything that I do was influenced by that lowbrow genre."