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Harnessing Scale for Native Visibility

LOS ANGELES — Ishi Glinsky’s practice is delightfully diverse. He moves fluidly from painting to sculpture, abstraction to representation, integrating elements of so-called craft and fine art, adapting whichever medium fits his purpose. Despite this fluid approach, one constant thread woven through his work is scale: Glinsky works big, often scaling up smaller objects to epic proportions. He does this not out of hubris or bravado, but in an attempt to honor the traditional art forms of the Tohono O’odham Nation, of which he is a member.

“By taking something and enlarging it, I’m hoping to create a monument,” Glinsky told Hyperallergic. “And to start a conversation on many fronts, to inform and educate people if they don’t know, and if they do know, it’s done in a new way.”

For his upcoming solo show at Chris Sharp Gallery in Los Angeles, Lifetimes That Broke The Earth, Glinsky will present works that reference the Tohono O’odham techniques of basket making. Using a combination of ink washes, oil sticks, and thickly impastoed marks made with a palette knife, Glinsky turns the intricate patterns into brightly colored abstractions, zooming in on the elemental construction. He juxtaposes two different basket types on his canvases: one made using Yucca, bear grass, and Devil’s claw, and another in which artisans loop together lengths of baling wire to construct metal baskets.

In his paintings, the enlarged wire loops resemble the spiral forms of galaxies, suggesting another jump in scale. “It’s a fluid collaboration of the past and present, tangible and intangible,” he explains.

Glinsky will also be showing his own wire baskets, which he makes by weaving spools of baling wire into a chain-link fence on a wall loom in his studio. He then folds and twists them into baskets whose familiar forms contain a wiggling mass of wire, calling back to, but quite distinct from, the traditional technique he is referencing. “One thing that makes him so extraordinary is that he’ll invent a technique adequate for each medium, which is somehow totally unprecedented,” gallerist Chris Sharp told Hyperallergic.

His first exhibition with the gallery, Monuments to Survival, in 2021, featured works that reference other Native American traditions, such as Zuni jewelry, or ledger drawings made by the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and other Plains Indians. He collaborated with Zuni artist Veronica Poblano, one of the originators of “Zuni Toons,” traditional jewelry made from silver and inlaid turquoise that references Looney Tunes and other cartoon characters.

Glinsky uses steel, aluminum, and resin to make his versions, whose enlarged size and placement in the gallery suggest a reappraisal of the original objects. “Folks could come across [these works] in a trading post, in a display case besieged by other Southwestern ephemera,” he said. “I felt that the original should take the space of my necklace.” Significantly, Glinsky shares a portion of the sales price with the artists he collaborates with or whose work he is referencing.

Then there is the jacket, which occupied the entire front room of Sharp’s gallery. “Coral vs. King Snake Jacket” (2019) is a meticulous facsimile of the punk leather staple, decorated with metal studs and patches and blown up to colossal size. In keeping with his resourcefulness, Glinsky made the studs from fence post caps and replicated the texture of asphalt to provide the jacket’s weathered patina. The patches resemble those of bands such as the Dead Kennedys and Public Enemy but have been adapted into Tohono O’odham symbols or icons that support the American Indian Movement (AIM).

Despite the jacket’s punk aesthetics, Glinsky said he chose the form for its connection to the regalia he made and wore when he participated in Pow Wows. “You’re wearing this armor in a sense when you’re out in the world,” the artist explained. “Regalia is also representative of who you are, where you’re from.”

“Coral vs. King Snake Jacket” (2019) was acquired by the Hammer Museum, which recently announced that Glinsky will be included in the next iteration of its LA Biennial, Made in LA. The work also caught the attention of Gabriel Ritter, who organized Glinsky’s first solo museum show Upon a Jagged Maze, which opened last fall at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at UC Santa Barbara. The exhibition was a decade-long survey, showcasing a cross-section of his multifaceted practice. Ritter described Glinsky’s works as “not just art forms but art movements unto themselves.”

“Just because art history hasn’t included them in the canon, that’s beside the point,” Ritter added.

In light of these exhibitions — and a planned solo show with P·P·O·W Gallery in New York in 2024 — it could be said that Glinsky is having a moment. All of this attention is especially notable given the unorthodox path he has taken through the art world. He grew up in Tucson, Arizona, in an artistic family (“Coral vs. King Snake Jacket” features a version of a drawing his late father made as a teen), and studied graphic design at a community college before exploring fine art on his own.

“I just started painting and finding my way through all different types of mediums,” he recalled. “Some of those, I sought out, some I hid from for a really long time. I was almost intimidated by painting. I didn’t know what I would contribute.”

He moved to LA in 2006, steadily continuing his material explorations, participating in some exhibitions, but largely staying out of the limelight. “He didn’t matriculate into the LA art world how most people usually do,” Sharp noted. This is not to say he wasn’t savvy about his career — he was tapped by Ralph Lauren in 2019 to create limited edition moccasins, an attempt by the brand to address how they have not always acknowledged the sources of their designs. However, his practice has been driven by his desire to share the traditions and artwork of the Tohono O’odham and other Native peoples, not with nostalgia in mind, but as a representative of contemporary art forms rooted in history.

“These stories that I’m holding, I’m doing my best to care for and tell them as respectfully as I can,” he said, “but also to crack them open and think about the future.”