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Ishi Glinsky’s “Monuments to Survival”

Chris Sharp Gallery, Los Angeles
March 13–April 24, 2021

It was an emergency. A young brown girl had Tik Tok’d misinformation about the origins of punk. A podcast was assembled. A white expert was brought in. He used to skateboard. He said the girl was “probably a good person” but she didn’t know what she was talking about. A Reddit post began with a list of black and brown punk artists (Pleasure Venom, Big Joanie, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex) and the thread spiraled into a tangled argument over whether or not they constituted the “real” origins of punk. I can’t believe these arguments are still happening. But then again, I’m still not certain I know what modernism is, only that it has failed us in some way, and I know that similar arguments occur about whether what we call “America” today started with brown people or white people, and what value judgements must attach to each tangled story.

Sitting on the ground in the back room of Chris Sharp’s white cube gallery, Ishi Glinsky’s Tohono O’odham Basket (2013) looks like a tangle of wires shaped into a gourd-like vessel, a purposeful twist on the traditional baling wire baskets of his tribe. Each of the five works in this moving show revives or revisits some North American First Nations craft or method or forgotten history. When refracted through various subcultural references and deadpan plays on scale, the importance of Glinsky’s commitment to intertribal artisanship is amplified by its elegant refusal of reductive narratives about what history belongs to whom.

There was a time, in the early aughts, when fashion was dominated by the arbitrary merging of cultural signifiers—Hello Kitty in heavy metal makeup; the radio emissions graphic from the cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (1979) shaped into a Mickey Mouse head. Any two things you could mash together in Photoshop had a reasonable chance of becoming a best-selling graphic tee (I can’t begin to tell you what has been done to the four bars of the Black Flag logo). It was pure design, and it took any last bit of bite these subcultures might have had left, grinding them into nothingburger fashion for the brunch set. It doesn’t quite get us back to before the death of God, but craft puts meaning back into postmodernism, and Glinsky’s works are surfeit with both craft and meaning. So much so that there is a supplemental key to all of the patches and imagery of Coral vs. King Snake Jacket (2019), an enormous punk battle jacket that is the centerpiece of the show, tellingly titled “Monuments to Survival.” It’s ten feet tall and meticulously scaled, down to the oversized stitching of the quilted lining, zipper teeth the size (and shape) of arrowheads, and hand-painted iconography mashing together punk logos with Native references (among many other symbols, both the Dead Kennedys and Public Enemy logos are bent into the letters AIM, the acronym for the American Indian Movement, founded in 1968).

Putting together a battle jacket, the hours of stitching and piercing and copying graphics, was the only time I saw the angry suburban boys I palled around with come close to something like craft. Not that they were “good” at it (DIY, for better or worse, is often conflated with deskilled, another dismissive attitude Glinsky undoes with his meticulous approach, beginning with thorough research and apprenticeship) but it was patient, focused hand labor, and they owned it.

In this moment, when so many institutions are scrambling for correctives and fill-ins for the many elided facets of art history that have been shaped by people of color, it makes sense that craft is back in fashion. And yet what a mistake it is to treat craft as a trend, when its endurance has everything to do with the transmission of ideas through hands, not the perception of it in the dominant culture. Speaking of fashion: Glinsky is no outsider or new discovery. His decade-long studio practice has branched out into collaborations with the popular sock company Stance (a brand that refers to its own aficionados as the “Punks & Poets”) and, interestingly, Ralph Lauren. It’s not surprising, given that craft and subculture have always been more baldly appreciated by the fashion industry. Sportswear is the closest we have to a national American costume, and Lauren has devoted his house to defining its visual codes, often incorporating broad Native visual signifiers, beginning with his “Santa Fe” collection in 1981, a year before Glinsky was born in Tucson, Arizona. TOVAANGAR, the Tongva name for the land on which Los Angeles was built, is painted on the back of Coral vs. King Snake Jacket, along with TOHONO O’ODHAM, the name of Glinsky’s tribe, and a giant Native American Center patch, copied and enlarged from a drawing by the artist’s father. The title doesn’t describe a fight so much as a choice. A Coral snake and a King snake look alarmingly similar. Only one of them is fatally poisonous.

Scaling up does something to objects. The outsized is so very close to the comic, and Glinsky rides a very fine line, ultimately pulling it off. Monumentalizing cultural artefacts is both an act of care and a gesture of difference. The resin and aluminum wall sculpture AKA Ricky the Rat (2020) is a lovingly enlarged replica of the silver and inlaid stone figures of highly collectible Zunitoons jewelry that gained popularity in the 1970s when Zuni artisans began using traditional inlay techniques to create bootleg cartoon characters, fashioning them into necklaces, earrings, and rings to sell to tourists. The wonky mouse/rat shown here, twenty-five inches tall, cools the intimacy endemic to a piece of jewelry, opening it up to the complexities of appreciation as art—the rat looks almost funny at this size, yet the viewer enjoys it from too polite a distance to elicit anything so disrespectful as laughter. The object holds this tension, steady.

Underneath the patent seductiveness of their size and skill, Glinsky’s works synthesize questions about the survival of sub and “minor” cultures into something so big it feels like an answer. Do we slip into ineffectual poses of subculture, which becomes mere style? Or do we tell our story with our hands? When mass culture in the United States is founded on the legacy of P. T. Barnum, traveling preachers, and snake oil salesmen, how do non-native Americans distinguish storytelling from just… talk? In “Monuments to Survival” there are no arguments, only a patient dovetailing of histories.