By Ryan Rice
For close to fifty years, noted artist Richard Glazer-Danay’s art practice has engaged with and consciously resculpted social, political and cultural absurdities with his urban sensibility, cynical humor and comprehension of traditional Indigenous knowledge and history. Born in Coney Island, New York, in 1942 to a Mohawk father and Jewish mother, Glazer-Danay comes from the first generation of a “new breed” — urban Indians — who descended from those who migrated from the reservation to urban centers for employment and education. His ancestral ties belong to a long line of high-steel construction workers who, since the 1900s, have relocated/traveled from the Mohawk reserve in Kahnawake, Quebec, to build skyscrapers and bridges in major cities around the world. These circumstances, which were much different from the federal government’s re-location/assimilation policy in other parts of the United States, maintained Kahnawakeronon’s sovereignty by shaping a thriving new community and solidifying the traditions that profoundly inform Glazer-Danay’s worldview.
Glazer-Danay proudly honors the Mohawk ironworker, warrior and forms of machismo in his well-known Headdress(es) for Modern Mohawks signature series he has worked on for over fifteen years. Taking an ironworker’s hardhat as a base, he builds his sculptures around the essential tools and symbols of high-rise construction workers, thus acknowledging the profound connections between Mohawk people, the construction trade and urban hubs like New York City. In addition to paying homage to a century-old tradition, Glazer-Danay utilizes the hardhat as a canvas, boldly overpainting the surface with glossy enamels to contain tradition and integrate aspects of modernity. The hardhat, as a symbol of protection, is literally a platform for Glazer-Danay to tackle and critique mainstream society and culture, colonial histories, stereotypical attitudes and forms of racism that obstruct the building of wisdom amid ignorance
Glazer-Danay’s oeuvre is made up of elements and images that reflect his colorful Coney Island and Hollywood upbringing, expressed through a Pop Art sensibility, bricolage, assemblage and a unique Mohawk influence. His process includes gathering, painting and gluing together found objects, dime-store toys, ornaments, kitsch, comic books, dirty magazines and thrift store treasures to be transformed into modern garish icons of worship and/or ridicule. Glazer-Danay relies on irony, metaphor and humor to take charge and to challenge. In Buffalo Gal (1984/85), a rarely shown series of four paintings depicting buffalo-headed nude women became controversial when the Robeson Center for the Arts and Science dubbed Buffalo Gal with Boots (1985) “soft-core porn” and removed it from the traveling exhibition Art of the Seventh Generation.
Glazer-Danay has also had a successful academic and studio teaching career, beginning in 1972 and continuing through 2005 (California State Universities, Chico, Riverside and Long Beach; University of California, Davis; University of Wisconsin, Green Bay), and in 1980, held a year-long appointment as acting director of the C.N. Gorman Museum (UC, Davis). His artwork is represented in major institutions such as the Heard Museum, the Philbrook Museum of Art, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the British Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to name a few. His extensive successes in the arts include traveling exhibitions: Shared Visions, Oh So Iroquois, Indian Humor, Gifts of the Spirit among others and the role of commissioner on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (1990–97). In each of these capacities, Glazer-Danay carries on — honoring his relationship to “walking iron,” a tradition of balance and vision that spans seven generations.