by Elaine O’Brien
A small monitor in the entrance to the exhibition screens an interview with Frank LaPena (1937-2019) made just months before his death. The esteemed Nomtipom Wintu artist, poet, historian, cultural leader and Sacramento State professor emeritus conceived the exhibition with Mark Dean Johnson, professor of art at San Francisco State. In the interview, LaPena speaks with clarity and affecting urgency about why this exhibition matters:
“The settlers came, and they didn’t understand why somebody could feel so good about an old dried up desert. They didn’t understand what it was with the trees, even though they did see the trees and were overwhelmed by them. They didn’t understand that that’s where the songs come from. That’s where the weather comes from. That’s where life comes from, and the diversity of that life…That’s why the artists are important, to show that something else.”
That "something else," the understanding that trees, weather, and all life, human and non-human, are interconnected, is a Native American ethic and a fact of environmental science that has obvious relevance for us in this urgent, polarized time when each day brings news of yet another human-induced natural and social disaster. The alternative, as seen in When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California, is a coherent vision of a just and balanced world.
Drawing inspiration from Native stories, ethics, spiritual traditions long considered obstacles to capitalist expansion and therefore irrelevant to mainstream culture, the art in the exhibition cuts from both sides of a blade forged in the hybrid language of contemporary art. One side exposes the linked crimes of ecocide and genocide perpetrated by the dominant powers; the other presents an inspirational model of survival and recovery in the Anthropocene.
The show, which presents five decades of Native California activist art, coincides with the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz, the event that launched Red Power activism. It arose along with the other global decolonization movements of the civil rights era, and the greater San Francisco Bay Area was a place of origin. The show conveys overlapping themes in loose chronological order beginning with the trailblazing 1970s generation that first translated traditional Indigenous visual culture into the idiom of contemporary art.
LaPena, Jean LaMarr, Rick Bartow, Fritz Scholder and George Longfish represent the first wave of Northern California artist-activists. A second wave, including James Luna and L.frank, arose in the 1980s and 1990s. Works from 21st-century artists include those from Spencer Keeton Cunningham and Richard Bluecloud Castaneda, who recently made brave resistance art at the Dakota Pipeline protests. Altogether, the half-century of production presented establishes the primacy of contemporary Native California art in the context of American and global Indigenist art, showing it to be equal in force and significance to any current contemporary art production.
The show opens with four large, impressive paintings that introduce the theme of ecological interdependence. One, an undated work by Frank LaPena titled North Mountain, is a devotional vision in white and blue of Mount Shasta, a sacred site for the Wintu people. Above the peak, the owl-like wings of the World Spirit spread to fill the wide canvas, luminously white, like the mountain itself, against the midnight-blue sky of the Cascades.
Beside it hangs Rick Bartow’s arresting Coyote and Crow Story (2014), a late work detailing the artist’s signature subject, human/animal/spirit beings and their transformation. Inspired by Native mythology and sources that include European modernism and Paleolithic cave art, Bartow describes the spiritual and natural drama played by animals and human-animal hybrids. On the right side of the canvas, Crow stands erect at the full five-and-a-half-foot height of the painting, beak open as if talking to the being on the left, a creature that appears to be a tangle of two or three animals. It has a human head, a horse head and four legs; two have human feet, and two have bear paws. All are equal in size and presence.
Welgatim’s Song (2001), a 6 x 8-foot canvas by Judith Lowry, presents the apocalyptic climax to the fable of coyote Weh-pom and his wife Welgatim, the frog woman whose powers hold the
elements in balance. Here, she unleashes them in a violent scene of ravaging fire, flood and volcanic eruption that evokes media images of today’s human-induced natural disasters.
The next gallery displays the toughest images in the show. In these works, red is the color of anger and blood, the color of Native American colonial memory. LaPena’s History of California Indians, shown at the 1999 Venice Biennale, groups eight hand-colored lithographs. Each features the same life-size death head with closed eyelids and stitched mouth, repeated in fugue-like solemnity. Printed on the faces is the chronology of forced assimilation and genocide, resistance and survival from the Spanish mission system and the terror of the Gold Rush era, to the termination and relocation policies of the 1950s, to the resistance actions of the late 1960s and early 1970s at Alcatraz, Pit River, Toyon and Wounded knee.
Jean LaMarr’s 1991 Seven from Hell (Columbus, The Priest, the Harlot, the Pimp, The Murderer, the Thief and Satan), an installation with etchings shown in the same narrow space as LaPena’s History, brands the first and subsequent colonizers of America as satanic reprobates. The thrift-store shoes the artist chose to characterize them — flip flops, pink high
heels, cowboy boots — rest on the floor beneath the portraits, adding further scorn and grim humor. A step away, Fritz Scholder’s gruesome Massacre in America: Wounded Knee (1972), shows butchered human flesh piled in a ditch: a horror compounded by the elegant austerity of the composition.
Another gallery displays critiques of US consumer culture. Harry Fonseca’s ironic American Dream Machine, from his signature Coyote series, shows the fabled animal trickster as a modern urban Indian between two worlds. Pop-informed, star-spangled in red, white and blue, the painting sparkles with shiny coins and silver stars among poker chips and dollar signs. At the center, a coyote inhip-hop sneakers leaps with delight at the rain of coins. He won the jackpot at an Indian casino.
The coyote is also central to L.frank’s fierce Even Where the Ancestors Live, only here he appears as a wrathful god, enormous in scale and backlit against a night sky. Coyote stands on the horizon of the world clothed in feathered regalia — stern, tall and wielding spear-shaped feathers. The earth below lies smothered in consumer goods: computers, headphones, hamburgers, televisions, cars crashed and gridlocked on a highway. In the lower-left, a big gun shoots a stream of bullets. An American flag bares sharp teeth between two stripes, a dollar sign replacing the stars. Even the night sky is colonized, littered with US satellites and spacecraft.
Other works address environmental exploitation and injustice. Lewis deSoto's panoramic photograph, Lost Hills (Yokut) 10.19.16, from his 2016 Power Series, is among the most striking. The one on view here documents oil drilling rigs in Yokut homelands. George Blake’s nuclear skull, Diablo Canyon, and the gas-masked “fetish” kachinas of Mooschka’s Kinky Kachina Series, reference potential and actual environmental poisoning of Native lands and peoples.
Even the non-objective works in the show carry meaning. The geometric patterns on the gorgeous contemporary regalia and baskets of Linda Aguilar and Karen Noble, for example, relate to the natural world, bringing Native traditional forms and media into the mainstream of contemporary art. Similarly, Robert Benson’s carved redwood column, Blue Jay Feather (2017), nods to Brancusi and Minimalism, but is inspired by the Tsnungwe Flower Dance that he helped revive.
All of these artists’ subjects and political objectives, from the 1970s to the present — the sovereignty of Native lands and peoples, the preservation of culture and tradition and changing Native identity — come out of the vision of a balanced world that LaPena hoped visitors to this exhibition, especially non-Natives, would see.
LaPena was among the world’s great Indigenous culture bearers, leaders of his generation who revived and extended tradition into the present towards an Indigenous future Which is why, when viewing When I Remember, we need to make a critical distinction: The works on display have little to nothing in common with the romantic stereotypes propagated in Hippie lore and New Age California nostalgia. They are the products of worldly artists whose output fully engages with the past and the present. And while we can readily appreciate the beauty, mastery of materials and compelling stories they present, grasping LaPena’s deeper understanding – that “something else” — requires time and thought.
This is where the exhibition catalog, published and distributed by the University of California Press, is a valuable resource. Generously illustrated with many full-page reproductions, it includes well-written artist biographies and informative essays by artists, curators and scholars who, in addition to LaPena and Johnson, include Malcolm Margolin, Julian Lang, Janeen
Antoine, Nicolas Rosenthal, Scott Shields and Kristina Perea Gilmore. Former Governor Jerry Brown’s forward stresses the importance of the exhibition to California’s present and future. The exhibition catalog will expand the influence of When I Remember I See Red well beyond the bounds of the Crocker and subsequent showings at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, and the Autry Museum of the American West, Los Angeles.
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“When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California” @ Crocker Art Museum through January 25, 2020. The legacy of Frank LaPena will be celebrated in a related exhibition at Sac State, "Offering Our Gifts to the World: The Curatorial Legacy of Frank LaPena" @ University Library Annex Gallery, January 21 to March 6, 2020, along with a lecture by Spencer Keeton Cunningham and Richard Bluecloud Castaneda on March 5 @ 6 pm.
About the author:
Elaine O'Brien is a professor of modern and contemporary art at Sacramento State University. Dr. O’Brien has lectured regionally, nationally and internationally on topics in global modern and contemporary art. She is the editor of the anthology, Modern Art in Africa, Asia, and Latin America: An Introduction to Global Modernisms, distributed internationally. Her current research is for a book about art produced in Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s in the context of that era’s sociopolitical revolutions and shift from the modern to the postmodern.