Buffalo Vector (Yellowstone Border), Merritt Johnson, 2009-2010
It is always rewarding to see Museum visitors draw close to a work of art, stop, and look closely. Without fail, this painting compels people to draw near.
From afar, Buffalo Vector is discernible as a landscape with rolling grassy hills, a beautiful golden green in the foreground, and cooler gray in the background against a backdrop of blue sky. Dark evergreens punctuate the terrain. A brilliant band of red divides the canvas horizontally, creating a boundary between the foreground and the background. The hard-edged band is broken in places, and red paint bleeds into the landscape below. In the foreground, a single buffalo stands out, dark brown against the golden grass. In the background, smaller buffalo make their way toward the foreground and the bleeding red boundary. Hundreds of delicate arrows and vector lines float on the surface of this scene, evoking the movement of the breeze, swirling insects, rising waves of heat, or the descent of raindrops from the sky.
In this work, Johnson – an artist of Mohawk, Blackfoot, and non-indigenous descent – considers the boundary of Yellowstone National Park, a designated habitat for the protection of bison, which were driven to near extinction in the 19th century. As with other elements of nature that cannot be contained or controlled – such as the flight of birds, the migration of animals, or seeds carried on the wind – the buffalo do not recognize the line of demarcation that defines the space where they should and should not roam, nor the dangers they face when they cross that border.
Johnson writes, “Human investment in land is so much about resources, about what we can get for land and what land can do for us. It’s all about use, for our comfort or convenience… I think that there is an Indigenous approach to land: to view the land as something that we need to sustain, rather than the land sustaining us. I think about the relationship that animals have to the land as being an Indigenous relationship.”