The penetrating gaze is the first element that grabs you. A challenge. A strong look of disdain mixed with dignity mixed with bemusement. A stand taken and projected for all the world to see, to understand, to answer. Draped round the man, a shoulder and arm free, you see the blanket; no—an American flag, crimson and white stripes painted with blinding accuracy and life, joining the field of stars on indigo, the bordering hem of grommets just kissing the floor. A reversed flag, signaling distress, in nautical terms.
After studying the perfect rendering, your eyes are drawn back to his. When you finally turn away, you suspect they will follow you.
Bob Coronato’s life-size portrait of Russell Means hangs today in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. Currently closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, one may experience exhibits online. I visited the capital in August 2019 and was privileged to view the painting “on exhibit,” as works are regularly rotated. The image still occupies a wing dedicated to Contemporary Americans, 2000-Present, though Means passed away in 2012, the same year Coronato completed the portrait.
As Bob states in personal “liner” notes displayed in his Hulett, Wyoming, Gallery and Museum, “I have been researching and planning this painting for over 10 years. I first heard about Russell Means when I moved into the Black Hills and learned how much controversy there was around him in the Hills . . . I wanted to learn more for myself.” Hulett is a long way, geographically and professionally, from the National Portrait Gallery, where current exhibition signage suggests “an era of upheaval and seismic shifts, in both American culture and international politics.”
Originally from New Jersey, Bob confesses to being an outsider. “Even as an outsider, I run into people who share stories and have strong feelings about the entire mishandling of the Indian People.”
Russell Means wished to bring to light, and mitigate, the suffering of his Oglala Nation.
Is the flag’s position describing a singular now, or is it a warning? At the artist’s request, Means agreed to wear the flag as depicted, but he reminded Coronato, “Indians are not the idea of old Hollywood westerns or to be thought of as ‘in the past,’ but a people very much of today, and with a rich history.” The artist meant to recognize Means for his activism on his people’s behalf.
You might shudder at the man’s part with the siege at Wounded Knee in 1973; a crisis, where a town was held hostage, a federal marshal shot and paralyzed, and two Native American activists killed. In the ensuing three years, two FBI agents were killed. A paradox of self-determination and government intervention fueled the heated conflict, but this is simplistic, and you would likely uncover less complexity in a Saturn rocket. Means, as spokesman, announced AIM’s settlement with the U.S. Government. He left the American Indian Movement in 1988, but continued to work to improve conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation, located in one of the poorest counties in the United States. Has life improved since? Was Means a catalyst? Or, misunderstood and conflicted himself?
The New York Times obituary described a colossal contradiction of a man, in reviewing his actions and their consequences.
A friend has described standing in the covered doorway of a Rapid City business with Russell Means and another man, all waiting for a downpour to cease. Her comical account: “He would turn in profile to the direction the traffic was moving. When the light turned, very dramatically, he would rotate in the new direction. It was hilarious!” Like a sunflower following the sun. She thought him vain, but he may have been merely playing. Subtle-like.
Coronato’s artistic intent, I believe, was not as apologist for the man, insofar as this could be possible, but he captured a bald truth in the contradictions, in paradoxes. From his subject’s wrist shines a finely-painted Rolex. Means insisted on wearing it and the black tee-shirt, as further evidence—or gesture—against Hollywood standards. But paintings are for interpreting, and you could imagine Means including the timepiece as a sly message of timeliness and perhaps worthiness.
Coronato once told me he suffered a kind of break while at work on the painting. He sunk his soul into it, and perhaps he did give something up, in trade, harkening back to the fear some indigenous peoples report, of their spirits being hi-jacked by a camera. The serious painting seriously demands your attention and consideration, not solely for its own sake, being a formidable effort, but for what it represents: the larger picture, a sign, a warning, the dire prediction. It asks, in its thousand-word capacity, what you will do. You will likely never forget his staring you down.
Having first encountered the painting when the artist initially hung it in his Wyoming Rogues Gallery, I felt a nudge, then, a charge—in the old sense of the word. If we are indeed responsible for knowledge attained (and today we are overrun by mere information, granted), do not gaze too long at this portrait. Move on to the next; in this particular National Portrait Gallery wing, it might be Toni Morrison, who redefined the Great American Novel, or Michelle Obama, who reinvigorated the role of First Lady. Choose the image into which you would lend, if not lose, your soul, but ask the subjects to release you afterward, if only to spread a few words—like a town-crier, or eyapaha.