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POIGNANT & POTENT

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Publication: Journal Santa Fe Section; Date: Sep 9, 2011; Section: Gallery Guide; Page: S8

POIGNANT & POTENT Luna’s biting humor leavens his straightforward bravery Art Issues MALIN WILSON-POWELL For the Journal

Since his first performance in 1987, artist James Luna’s serious and biting style of humor has been a welcome and much-needed tonic to art world insularity. He pierces selfsatisfaction, complacency, and trivial pursuits with his interventions. Luna has the actor’s gift for timing and embodiment as seen in this first survey of his photographic works “Rock and Roll Photo Coup.” This is a concise exhibition that opened in conjunction with the “Counting Coup” group show of 18 artists, a title derived from the Plains Indians means of measuring personal acts of bravery. To use one’s body as one’s art is brave and demanding. The earliest sequence on view is Luna’s 1992 black-and-white mug shot triptych “Half Indian/Half Mexican” shown with a 2007 color series of the aging artist in the same format. The poignancy and potency of these images not only demonstrate Luna’s kind of straightforward and sober bravery –– leavened with his lively eyes –– it also shows just how solid his formal choice of deadpan 11-by-14 inch prints was in 1992: it is difficult to build upon a piece 15 years later unless it still feels pertinent. These companion pieces invite the universal pleasure in vicarious scrutiny of life’s vicissitudes imprinted on the human face, keeping in mind the caveat that you have the face you deserve by the time you are 50. In the 2007 color version, the artist bares his older, bigger, scarred torso anchoring a head of thinner and grayer hair. He also looks wiser, if sadder. Although they are photographs, they are unframed and presented sculpturally ––away from the wall –– creating a shadow that becomes the frame. Another series titled “Apparitions,” 2010, features three pairs of archival images of Luna’s father and other tribal elders from his Luiseno tribe on the La Jolla Reservation, where the artist lives. Although wearing an Elvis “I’M DEAD” T-shirt and Hawaiian shorts, and sporting a golf club/cane, Luna’s re-enactment of his ancestor’s expressions and postures are uncanny. The back-and-forth comparison here expands the examination of a single life to generational legacies that reverberate with the stalwart endurance of untold ravages visited upon Native Americans. The newest body of work, “We Become Them,” includes a video and photographs of masks paired with Luna’s homage to powerful spirits in these historical masks. The artist was inspired to make this series when he attended a dance workshop in Alaska given by Robert Davidson, who made the point that, when his people danced, they didn’t wear costumes; that when they wear the regalia of these animals, “we become them.” At a public presentation during Indian Market, Luna did a brief performance of a lizard-headed “Mr. Turtle” stretching his neck and probing the wafts of air with flaring nostrils. When Luna was asked how he so fully became this creature, he said, “I take my time, because when you take your time, you see things.” A video of Luna becoming four masked creatures, even though it is only 4-1/2 minutes in length, magically carries this sense of timeless immersion in a pace that feels stately, each figure emerging from a black screen or the dark unknown. The overall trajectory in this modest exhibition is from solo figure to hardscrabble community to the mythic dimension. Luna was using a cane on his August visit to Santa Fe and described his video “Bringing It Home,” a performance translating into the reality of a diabetic procedure, all too common for Natives, where diabetes is an epidemic. His video follows the ritual of gratitude and the blessing of food with a check of his blood sugar. Luna acknowledged the power of C. Maxx Stevens “Last Supper” installation, the other solo pendant exhibition that opened in concert with his show and the “Counting Coup” exhibition. Stevens’ white-on-white, sparkling “Last Supper” tableaux has a terrible beauty. Beauty serves her well, just as does Luna’s humor, as a device that invites viewers to linger longer and look closer. While Luna always comes across as a regular, up-todate hangin’ with his bros “Rock & Roll” kind of guy, Stevens presents a wonderland of female softness with table-top landscapes of wax pastries peaking through drifts of crushed glass and salt. Beneath the three tables groaning under the weight of translucent models of food –– suggesting not only empty nutrition –– are piles of discarded boots, shoes and canes, reminders of limbs and lives lost to this devastating disease. As a backdrop, Stevens uses a white hospital curtain, another reminder of the sterile and blank impersonality of a system that sees food as commodities and diabetes as a business opportunity. Posters on the wall give the “Nutritional Facts” for such white ingredients as sugar, lard, white flour, and salt, the government-issued foodstuffs passed out to Native tribes. Obviously, the blinding whiteness of it all is replete with multiple metaphors that are an indictment of dominant “white” culture; and, the “Last Supper” refers to more than the meal and betrayal before Christ’s death. Stevens, former dean at the Institute for America Indian Arts, currently on the art faculty at the University of Colorado in Boulder, has made a powerful and resonant piece. Hopefully, this installation will travel widely and well, and not get buried, as did Ed Keinholz’s “Five Car Stud,” 1969-72, his condemnation of racism in America that is only now being shown for the first time since it was made. With these exhibitions, the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) can confidently count their own coup. In conjunction with this exhibition, they have released a landmark publication, “Manifestations: New Native Art Criticism,” featuring the work of 60 Native artists, including Luna and Stevens. MoCNA has done the heavy lifting and reached a notable position of leadership in presenting the values, histories, and aesthetics that define contemporary Native art. It is a culmination of the museum’s reorientation and commitment to contemporary art that keeps widening its horizons beyond the U.S. to Canada and Australia (as of now, who knows what will come). More than three years ago, MoCNA embarked on an initiative called the Vision Project and with great aplomb have put themselves indelibly on the map. If you go WHAT: James Luna: “Rock & Roll Coup & C. Maxx Stevens: Last Supper” WHERE: Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, 108 Cathedral Place WHEN: Through Dec. 31. COST: Adults: $10. Seniors (62 +), students with valid ID and New Mexico residents halfprice. Free on Sunday to Native people, members, veterans, children 16 and under, and state residents. CONTACT: (505) 988-8900or www.iaiamuseum.org

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POIGNANT & POTENT

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COURTESY MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY NATIVE ARTS “Half Indian/Half Mexican” is a 2007 color photographic triptych by James Luna.

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POIGNANT & POTENT

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C. Maxx Stevens addresses the ravages of diabetes in her sparkling white-on-white installation “Last Supper” at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.

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James Luna + C. Maxx Stevens at MoCNA  

Review of James Luna "Rock & Roll Coup" + C. Maxx Stevens "Last Supper" exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts(MoCNA), Santa...

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