Kent Monkman’s Massive Renaissance-Style Paintings Upend Colonial Narratives

More is definitely more in the massive tableau paintings of Kent Monkman. The Canadian artist of Cree and Irish ancestry paints scenes that feel like modernized Renaissance paintings, depicting everything from Native Americans and colonial cowboys straddling a naked woman martyr covered in pierced arrows, to surreal mashups of uniform-clad prisoners, winged angels, and crashing helicopters, all squeezed within the same frame.

Cash for Souls, Kent Monkman, 2016

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In embracing this sort of ‘maximalist’ aesthetic, Monkman is able to explore an extraordinary amount of subject matter and thematic interests across his already large body of work, different than many abstract or minimalist painters whose works often emphasize the subtle differences amongst each piece. This isn’t to say Monkman doesn’t have a distinct visual style; he most certainly does, but the storytelling ability of his paintings feels just as important as his own painterly capacities.

Our Lady of Sorrows, Kent Monkman, 2017

Interestingly enough, Monkman was once an abstract painter before undergoing a massive stylistic shift: “I moved away from abstraction years ago, because the trajectory of reducing painting into smaller vocabularies ultimately leads to work that is too personal and cryptic,” the painter tells Creators. “With abstraction, the painter’s hand or unique mark takes precedent over the overall composition, rather than being in support of it.”

“When I finally surrendered the ego of the Modernists’ quest for making an individual mark, and disappeared my hand into my work to serve a larger purpose, I realized I had a reached a mature period,” Monkman adds. “Much like how a master filmmaker avoids heavy handed or distracting techniques to allow his audience to become immersed in the actual story.”

Seeing Red, Kent Monkman, 2014

Although he straddles a wide topical breadth in his paintings, the interactions between indigenous peoples and their colonizers is certainly Monkman’s topic of choice, appearing at a much higher frequency than anything else. The subject is surely a personal one for Monkman, and his ability to materialize colonial relationships outside of more common and conventional forms of representations speaks to the painter’s conceptual ability.

Miss Europe, Kent Monkman, 2016

To Monkman, these works function almost as a form of reparation through re-appropriation; older painting styles that originated within European cultures are shown at their most destructive. 

“For many years, the crux of my work has been challenging and exploring how European settler artists represented indigenous peoples and the landscapes of North America. My investigations led into deeper layers of Western Art history, and these influences have informed my work as a painter,” explains Monkman. “I saw the potential for contemporary and indigenous subjects to be expressed in a vocabulary of painting that many consider to be obsolete.”

Le Petit dejeuner sur l’herbe, Kent Monkman, 2014

“In resurrecting these dead European traditions, I refer to how indigenous traditions have been under assault by European cultures. The effects of European Modernity on indigenous cultures has been devastating, and I have a found idioms and forms from Classical and Modern art history to express in my own paintings.”

See more of Kent Monkman’s maximalist paintings, as well as drawings, installations, and film excerpts by the artist, on his website.


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