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Terran Last Gun: Contemporary spin on ancient tradition

By Medicine Man Gallery on

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Terran Last Gun, 'Future Cosmic Energy.' 16x45 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Missoula Art Museum

Terran Last Gun, 'Future Cosmic Energy.' 16x45 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Missoula Art Museum

What do you see when looking at Terran Last Gun’s geometric abstraction ledger drawings?

Do you see Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly? Hard Edge painting from the 1960s?

Something else?

Last Gun’s works prove an art appreciation Rorschach test. Different people will see different things, and what you see will reveal your background even more than the artist’s.

“What I’m doing is not pulling from any European art history at all, it's from these painted lodges that we’ve been creating for thousands of years on the Great Plains as Blackfeet people,” Last Gun/Saakwaynaamah’kaa (Piikani/Blackfeet) said. “If you Google ‘Blackfoot painted lodges’ there are examples of that and it's all hard edge, it's all geometric work and geometric vocabulary of things that connect us to the land, connect us to the stars.”

When looking at Last Gun’s (b, 1989, Browning, MT) ledger drawings, that’s what you should be seeing and you can see for yourself at the Missoula Art Museum during its presentation of “Terran Last Gun: Future Cosmic Energies” on view through August 12, 2023.

“The triangles, the mounds, or flat lines are symbolic of land, mountains, hills, plains, and then disks, or even cluster of disks, is stars, or the Pleiades, different constellations,” Last Gun explains. “As Blackfoot people we were very connected to the cosmos and land and the animals and those lodges are a testament to that; we were so connected that we interpreted (them) in a simple, geometric way, but it had so much meaning and so many layers to it. It feels very innate to me in terms of what I'm doing with my ledger drawings.”

Abstract art sometimes gets a bad rap for being devoid of meaning – painting for painting’s sake – but the artist reminds, “there is story and identity here, you just have to be able to recognize it.”

Last Gun is the son of Terrance Guardipee (Piikani), a ledger artist highly acclaimed for his vibrant drawings centering horses, riders and figures. Look close and you’ll see the geometric shapes Last Gun has taken and run with in his drawings populating Guardipee’s backgrounds.

“I think that's what separates me from other Indigenous artists that are working in the medium of ledger drawing,” Last Gun said. “You typically see more representational, more figurative drawings, and I’m doing this other thing, but it's still very much meaningful, very much layered in these different experiences.”

True meaning is not in the eye of the beholder, it is in the mind of the maker.

“Indigenous abstraction – it’s abstract, yet full of meaning and stories and has multiple layers,” Last Gun explained in an interview with the Missoula Art Museum.

A Reluctant Artist

“Future Cosmic Energies” includes ledger drawings and screenprints created just since 2019. Last Gun only graduated with his Associates of Fine Arts degree in studio arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe in 2016.

Even then, he didn’t want to pursue a career as an artist, resisting the path his father laid out. He was making art, but chose to work as a gallery assistant instead. When COVID hit, he was laid off.

Last Gun went into “survival mode” as he describes it, leaning into his artwork and starting to sell at markets and seek out limited gallery representation. In only his second year exhibiting at the Southwestern Association for Indian Art Market, his Future Cosmic Energy, a ledger drawing diptych on two pages from the Missoula County Clerk’s Register of Treasurer Disbursements dated to 1918, won two awards, including first place for ledger art.

That was 2022. The artwork is now on view in the MAM exhibition, his first solo museum presentation. Last Gun’s rise has been meteoric, a solo exhibition at an esteemed museum while not yet 35-years-old, less than 10 years removed from art school and well less than five years in on pursuing his career seriously.

His father’s reputation helped put him on MAM’s radar, as did recommendations from a pair of fellow Native artists from Montana: Neal Ambrose-Smith (Flathead Salish, Metis, and Cree; descendant Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nations) and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (enrolled citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes; Métis and Shoshone descent). Ambrose-Smith was one of Last Gun’s instructors at IAIA. Jaune is Neal’s mother and an icon of contemporary art with a career retrospective presently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Customary Meets Contemporary

Last Gun’s influences aren’t exclusively Piikani painted lodges – a term he prefers to the more common ‘tipi.’ He cites the work of Josef Albers, Stella, Frederick Hammersley, late Cree artist Jeff Kahm who generated a style of Indigenous abstract art, and contemporary geometric abstract artist Carmen Herrera, as all interesting him.

Colorful. Hard edge. Abstract. Geometric. Each and every one.

Last Gun recognized the commonality of their style, but couldn’t put his finger on why he was so enamored with it.

“’Whoa, I’ve seen these growing up – these lodges,’” Last Gun remembers of his awakening which connected this very modern art to the very ancient art of his ancestors. “It does really go back to those painted lodges, but also the landscape of Browning, Montana. We border the Rocky Mountains – all of them have almost triangle peaks so you can see why we use the triangles for them – and then these buttes that are out on the plains, just flat plains in general are very inspiring to my work in terms of line.”

Hard edge painting. Pop art. Op art. Piikani painted lodges. And, of course, ledger drawings and his father. Last Gun has synthesized them all into a breakthrough, original, contemporary interpretation of artistic creation spanning the globe and thousands of years.

Until his time at IAIA, however, he didn’t even realize such a thing could be a thing.

“I didn’t know what contemporary art was – what do you mean by that? What is contemporary Indigenous art? It was there that I discovered we don’t just have to paint a warrior, you can do geometric shapes, mixed media installation, digital art,” Last Gun said. “I was like ‘wow,’ this is what I want to do. I thought art was a painting. I thought it was representational. It was in (Santa Fe) that I discovered non-objective, non-figurative, abstract (art) and then I realized that (Piikani) were doing something similar to this, it’s not just western European artists or even early American artists that have been doing this, it’s been happening in North America for thousands of years.”

Diné weavings. Pueblo pottery. Piikani painted lodges and parfleche bags.

Were these the world’s first abstract artworks?

“My argument is that Blackfoot painted lodges are the first (abstract artworks). This is classic art that has been in North America for tens of thousands of years,” Last Gun said. “I very much try to stress to people who want to learn about my work that it is very much Indigenous, I am inspired by European art, of course, Western art, American art, but it's my own culture, my own tribe that has influenced me the most.”

An Artist All Along

Piikani culture has not only inspired Last Gun’s artwork through its geometry, but its dramatic colors as well. Here, again, the artist was years in making the connection to what he saw as a child in Browning and his burgeoning contemporary art practice.

“I always give credit to growing up dancing, going with my grandmother, my mom, my dad, they would bring me to all these different powwows and whenever you’d create a new regalia, you're always thinking about what colors to use because they attract, it's very much like a bird, the male is very colorful and the female, they’re looking for that,” Last Gun said. “The style I dance now is called the men's Prairie Chicken Dance, it is an imitation of the mating season and how they dance to impress the females.”

Last Gun eventually came to recognize this as performance art.

“In that sense, I've been an artist my whole life,” he said. “Thinking about that and seeing all the colors that are involved; everyone takes color seriously in the powwow realm. That same way of thinking, choosing colors that are going to attract people, I definitely brought that into what I'm doing now.”

Shape. Story. Color.

Indigenous and contemporary.

Terran Last Gun, 'Deep Existence.' 7.75x5.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Missoula Art Museum

Terran Last Gun, 'Deep Existence.' 7.75x5.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Missoula Art Museum

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