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Confronting All the Demons

James Luna deals candidly with the alcoholism, violence and bad health plaguing many Native Americans.

June 16, 1996|Leah Ollman | Leah Ollman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Wearing only a breechcloth, James Luna climbed onto the sand of a shallow display case at the San Diego Museum of Man, lay down and made art history. It was 1987. Multiculturalism was still a force on the upswing, chipping away at the stubborn exclusiveness of American history. For the viewers of "The Artifact Piece," as Luna's performance/installation was called, those stalwart myths of discovery and conquest, justice and liberty for all crumbled before their eyes.

During the run of the show, Luna's robust presence filled a space marked for the dusty and dead, the Indians of romanticized legend and conventional anthropology museums, a vanishing race of savages and sages. Labels identified him by name and tribe (Luisen~o/Dieguen~o), and explained some of the markings on his body--the scars, for instance, left by injuries incurred after excessive drinking. Luna's college diploma, Allen Ginsberg books, Miles Davis tapes and other personal belongings were on view in glass cases nearby.

"The Artifact Piece" (reprised in 1990 at the Studio Museum in Harlem) was a succinct, stunning rebuttal to obsolete stereotypes of Native American life. Like many of Luna's works, it drew its power to engage and provoke from its function as a "two-way mirror," according to professor Richard Hill, who discusses Luna in his Native American Studies courses at the University of Buffalo.

"As an artist, he's looking through the mirror to see how society looks at Indians. And as an Indian, he's looking at himself. It's a double commentary. That's what's intriguing as well as startling about his work. People expect a spiritual nirvana from Indian art. He talks about things that aren't so pretty to look at."

Things like alcoholism, violence and exploitation.

In his first solo show in Los Angeles, Luna evokes the physical decline of the community on the La Jolla Indian Reservation where he lives, in northern San Diego County, while also conjuring an image of his community's thriving ceremonial traditions. "The Dream Hat Ritual," at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, is enacted by 12 sculptural dancers and singers, some on the floor, some suspended from the ceiling. All wear cowboy hats that Luna painted with patterns relating to Indian basketry designs. Nature sounds and plaintive cries float through the space, made sacred for the dance by a ring of willow branches. The dancers' skeletal bodies are fashioned of crutches or walkers, painted with simple "tattoos" of dots and diamonds.

"I'm surrounded by bad health," Luna explains, sitting in his orderly studio on a quiet, oak-covered hill. "My brothers [on the reservation] have lost their legs to diabetes. The other night, I was saddened, touching these objects used by sick people. In our beliefs, you don't play with these things. It'll come back to haunt you. But there's a fine line--I'm not playing with them, I'm using them, I'm working with them."

Luna, a stocky man of 46, with long black hair gracefully turning silver around his broad face, was born on the reservation of a Luisen~o mother and Mexican father, and he grew up in rural Orange County. In 1976, after getting his bachelor of fine arts degree at UC Irvine, he moved back to administer the reservation's education department. A few years later, he returned to school, earning a master's degree in counseling from San Diego State University. In addition to making art, Luna has worked since 1982 as a counselor at Palomar College in San Marcos.

Counseling, he says, has kept him "people-oriented," and imposed a healthy distance between him and the art world, which has lavished attention on him. Announcements for his exhibitions and performances at museums and art centers across the country neatly paper an entire wall of his studio. In 1993, he performed "Shame-man," a series of searing vignettes about America's love/hate relationship with Indians, as part of the much-watched Whitney Biennial in New York City. He's scheduled to show a higher-tech version of "The Dream Hat Ritual" at the Whitney in 1997.

Spurred on by an almost treacly political correctness, many curators and critics now open their arms wide to artists from traditionally marginalized communities. But that openness brings with it new burdens on the artist and a different, subtler form of entrapment, Luna says. When called upon because of their ethnicity, such artists are then presumed to represent their entire culture by viewers laden with their own stereotypes and preconceptions.

Luna has felt this backlash in various ways. When studying at Irvine, he began making hard-edge abstract paintings that incorporated Native American designs.

"People would look at the paintings and say, 'Oh, these are nice paintings'--and in almost the same breath--'Too bad they're Indian,' " he recalls. "It was like they couldn't be real critical of them, because if you're being critical of the paintings, you're being critical of the culture."

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