In his current solo exhibit, artist & activist, Spencer Keeton Cunningham addresses the first point of contact between European colonists and indigenous peoples. In his distinct style, he has created a new mural, installation, film festival & art exhibit at Space Gallery in downtown Portland, Maine. The opening reception is Friday Feb 2nd, 5-8pm 2018
“I’m really happy about this exhibit. It’s something new for me,” Cunningham stated. “The legendary Jonathan Richman of The Modern Lovers is actually coming to play a live musical set inside my art show, so it’s a big honour to be a part of something like that.”
VNA: Can you tell us a little about this exhibit and what it’s about?
SKC: “Sure. Well as far as the location of where I’m exhibiting, this is pretty close to where the Columbus expedition first landed, and spread its plague throughout these lands. Now in 2018, people in this country still blindly live by the Columbus mentality. Whether they are conscious of it or not, it exists deep in the back of their minds. I don’t relate to it. Never have. Maybe it was because I learned early on that the way to get your food is to hunt for it and it’s necessary to respect the animals and natural habitats that exist within this earth.”
“Although the Columbus mentality may be tempting to follow, in the long-run, it’s not beneficial for the future of the four-legged animals of this land, the rivers, the oxygen, and the children that will occupy this earth after we pass away generations from now.”
Cunningham arrived in Portland, Maine after doing another solo exhibit titled “DECOLONIZE” in Oakland California at Good Mother Gallery only a week prior.
Cunningham had this to say, “Before I talk about the ARRIVAL exhibit I have to mention what I did right before it. It’s been a wild adventure. I called the exhibit I just did before DECOLONIZE because it’s a topic that is very important historically. The decolonization of these lands would heal them, you know? But you can also start small by decolonizing your mind.”
Cunningham created the majority of the works onsite in Oakland. The exhibit featured ten new paintings and eight new photographs (the photographs documented Cunningham’s time at Standing Rock a year prior)
“I guess I’ve been in a tornado recently, I try to tell people that when they get near me. You get used to this type of thing when you’ve been on the road for this long. I’ve been on the road for almost 4 years straight now. I guess I’m still calling this an art project. I’m still writing, still documenting, still creating a body of work that exists as a part of this trip I’ve been on. Although I wonder if people will only take notice after I’ve come and gone. Only time will tell.”
“About a week ago, I drove about 900 miles to Oakland, California. I did the exhibit there, then, the morning after the opening reception I drove 700 miles up to Portland, Oregon. I painted a mural in PDX in one day and then jumped on three flights the next day. The last one landing in Portland, Maine. Where I am now.”
Prior to creating “ARRIVAL” Cunningham did his “DECOLONIZE” exhibit right in the heart of downtown Oakland. “This is where it goes down-Right here on this block, this art is not separate from the streets…And let me say this for the record, I am not a ‘street’ artist– but this show right here is more street than any street artist out there, period.”
During his exhibit in Oakland, Cunningham made friends with a homeless person while installing his work. He had the man, only known as ‘Teardrop’, join him in a live musical freestyle performance during the DECOLONIZE opening reception, where Cunningham wore a space helmet and created a live instrumentation for Teardrop to express himself over.
“I wanted to bring the streets to the gallery. Most of the time I can’t relate to other artists. I grew up in a tumultuous environment very early on as a youth and I can really relate more to someone like Teardrop than some privileged man or woman writing some long winded cheesy artist statement about how their art is so deep and embodies the idea of ‘time’ or some other weak topic. “Most artists are wankers”, to quote my man. It’s true, most artists are wankers.”
Wearing a space helmet skateboarding through the crowd of his DECOLONIZE exhibit later into the night, Cunningham drew quite a crowd, jumping off of chairs and inviting people to do the same. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Cunningham wear the helmet. He calls it “The Space Man Landing.”
“I do it sometimes when I’m doing my first solo exhibit in a city or if its someplace I haven’t exhibited for a long time. Oakland is where I got my first start in the Art World in a sense. I think my first show I did in Oakland was back in 2005-2006. I felt like it’s been 10 years since I’ve done a legitimate show there. I like to put on a show, it’s easier than talking to people. I’m actually quite awkward in social situations. So I get to hide underneath the space helmet. In a sense, when you come to one of my exhibits I act as if I am simply part of the art. I paint what is on my mind in that moment and it is where I come from. Jackson Pollock once said, “Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.” I definitely agree with this. Although, that’s up to the public to decide if what I do is good or not. I just kind of do what I do for therapy. The fact that people get to see what I do is a bonus.”
When asked about his current ARRIVAL exhibit, Cunningham explains, “To speak a bit more about this current solo exhibit ARRIVAL, what I did was create a landscape for the viewer to walk inside of. There are a series of sacred hills on the horizon line and I created a series of constellations in the night sky, in a sense, to talk about time, history, ancestors in the sky, people that walk amongst the stars.”
“I enjoy meeting different native elders and hearing about what their tribe believes. The Aurora Borealis is believed to be a giant fishing at night with a giant torch, by some native people up in northern Alaska and Canada. But what I created here was meant to speak about the original arrival of Europeans, and, in a dark way while maintaining humour in my art, I painted a picture to describe something that to me is almost indescribable in words.”
“For instance, there is one area of the wall where I created a symbol of the 2 towers and a plane flying towards it, to the left of the plane is a teepee with smoke arising from the flaps (a comment on the idea of the romanticized notion of the smoke signal in native culture). I’m always trying to think of what is the simplest way I can create meaning in art with the most basic of all lines or shapes so that a 5-year-old kid or an 85-year-old man can understand what the meaning is.”
VNA: Anything else you’d like to add?
SKC: “Just that this ARRIVAL show was really fun to make. I created it after not sleeping for about a week and then arriving and not sleeping for about five days. Other than the paintings it was great to screen some new films I’ve made lately. I created a new music video from my good friend and legendary Canadian rapper, Moka Only.”
“I made another one for Abstract Rude and Myka 9. Some Los Angeles based rappers who have been at the forefront of originating styles since the early 1990’s.”
Spencer Keeton Cunningham’s installation and paintings are on display from January 26-June 30th 2018 at Space Gallery 538 Congress St, Portland, Maine.