Back what seems a lifetime ago, before phones were smart and airports had security guards, I remember projecting ahead to the time that is now. My friend Deb staunchly maintained that humans could and even surely would extricate ourselves from global crisis. “But it won’t be the scientists or techno geeks or politicians who lead the way,” she said, “it’ll be the artists.”
“How does a painting in every living room save the world?” I argued.
“Not just the art,” she said. “The process of making the art.”
Since then, the calendar pages have flown and a whole new generation has grown up in our midst, amongst them Native artist Cannupa Hanska Luger. Since graduating last year from the Institute of American Indian Arts, Cannupa (pronounced “Channupa”) has contributed to seven or eight exhibitions so far and, by the time you read this, he’ll have added four more.
“I usually wait till the last minute,” he says. Since it can stretch out to be endless lengths of time before he discovers what he’s making, he devotes a whole month to each show’s theme. “Failure is such a great teacher! I think I know, or I have several ideas, then in the process, maybe it doesn’t work out or I see something else I want to manifest, instead. I love to be lost in time. I’m a junkie for that feeling where you go, ‘Wow! Six hours just went by!’ Process,” he adds gleefully, “is my favorite part.”
Aha—process! It’s a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to creating. Rather than imposing on your idea, you allow your idea to take the reins and pull you along with it. Kind of like being a mad scientist of the imagination, constantly reinventing the possibilities out of materials that started out as something else.
In contemplating the theme “Plant” for a show at Caldera Gallery, Cannupa wanted to focus on trees. Serendipitously, he found a toy logging truck and bought it, but then his installation idea burst through those original borders. Reluctantly leaving the little truck behind, he continued playing around, then abruptly switched gears, and suddenly his idea morphed into life-size clay trunks with chain saw marks marring their surfaces. “And then I saw that the stumps can regrow, so I made these little paper nodes coming out of each one.” Having now introduced what he lovingly calls “insurgence,” he decided to slip cast a big group of bottles to hand out at the opening, impregnating each one with wildflower seeds in the new Molotov cocktail tradition of guerrilla gardening.
Cannupa has followed this inventive “Look Ma no GPS” process all his life. Born in North Dakota on the Standing Rock Reservation, he spent every summer working on his father’s ranch and the rest of the year with his mother, Kathy “Elk Woman” Whitman, a single mom who raised her five children on art. “I learned from her that an artist’s life is not an easy life, Cannupa says. “You have to hustle,but there’s a lot of freedom in it.”
Throughout his childhood, he always drew, making comic books and “just edging by in school,” listening as his hand drew. (“I had more sketches in my notebooks than notes!”) After graduation, he took off with a buddy for the Pacific Northwest. “We got to Olympia and fell into the slam poetry scene, which we loved at first. But then we got bored; it was more about how you said stuff than what you said.” With a wider group of friends, he joined a band called the Saints of Everyday Failures. Before performances, “I started painting graffiti-style on found objects, everything from dumpster lids to water meter covers, and we’d sell those to people in the audience.”
The hustling never stopped. “Things are cheap in Olympia, but there aren’t really many jobs, so even if you’re only paying $200 for rent, you still somehow have to come up with the $200!” So Cannupa bought a large quantity of small canvases, lined up a batch on the floor and, assembly line–style, color-washed them. “I figured that even if people couldn’t afford a big painting, who can’t pay $20 for a little one? So I’d toss a bunch into my bag before I left every morning, and whenever I had a few spare moments during one of my jobs, I’d pull one out and draw on it with paint markers. Each one was different. More often than not, whenever I was hurting for cash, somebody would buy a piece. My jobs weren’t always reliable for keeping me going but the art always came through.”
A self-taught artist save for those techniques he learned from his mother, Cannupa received a National Endowment for the Arts scholarship which he used to attend IAIA, “and, because I’d tried every other medium they offered there, I jumped on doing clay!” He took to clay, he says, like a duck to water. “It’s so plastic, so pliable. Clay calls all the shots. You’re only going as far as it lets you.” He also works in many other media, including paint, fabric, foam, photography and paper, which he cuts to create intricate 3-D structures.
Because he isn’t represented by just one gallery, he says, “I can stay as busy as I am, as opposed to the one or two shows a year I would otherwise have. Creating is what makes me happy. Everything else is entropy.” Cannupa made the wild and complex foam costumes and masks for the Meow Wolf performance piece The Moon is to Live On, while also performing several live rap numbers for it. He’s participated in shows for the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, the Tower Gallery, the Center for Contemporary Arts, Metallo Gallery, GF Contemporary and others. For last summer’s “I Love You to Death” show at the Eggman & Walrus Art Emporium, he explored the subtleties of intimacy between predator and prey. “A snowshoe hare and a great snowy white owl have evolved over time together,” he says. “Their relationship is more beautiful than tragic. Death can be seen as almost a reward for a life well lived.” The expressions on his ceramic animals’ faces, lovingly shaped with grace and naked wonder, locked in this final embrace, portray that difficult-to-grasp dichotomy. Another of his sculptures along a similar theme, this one life-size, has been purchased by the North American Native Museum in Zurich.
An upcoming group show, “Low-Rez: Native American Lowbrow Art,” opens August 17, 2012 at Eggman & Walrus. Owner Evan Glassman says it’s comprised of emerging and established Native artists working in the lowbrow genre of pop surrealism. Artists use pop imagery, he explains, along with subversive humor to counter the false fantasies of the Native American as “noble savage.”
Cannupa hasn’t begun his Low-Rez piece yet but he’s playing with ideas. In contemplating all the possibilities presented by the show’s theme, his responses shoot off in a fireworks display of directions. “Lowbrow art is not high-end,” he begins. “It’s quick and dirty, almost savant-style, accessible, something we all can recognize. Remember last year, there was a lot of talk about a so-called neo-Navajo line of clothing put out by Urban Outfitters? They were playing with our iconography, making it faddy, but you know what?—wait a minute, that’s our creation story you’re putting on your panties and flasks!”
Then, taking it a level deeper, he continues, “But American culture is worshipped as much by Natives as by the greater American population, even though, with all the flour and sugar, the widespread diabetes, we’ve become apocalyptic figures—so those cultural icons like Betty Crocker and the Pillsbury Doughboy are a lot more menacing to us! But there’s still a complacency among Natives—after all the reservations and boarding schools, the blood quantification, forced assimilation—finally, after so many generations of us getting in queue, living under a system that wants to make us disappear—we’re the ones oppressing ourselves now!”
Shaking his head, Cannupa says, “I play a lot more in the contemporary art world. I love the idea of Native art but, at the same time, I don’t know how real it is. We can sell our songs, our stories, our prayers, all those things that are sacred, as artwork, and that’s strange to me. Let’s glorify being Native American now. We lost a country, we only got bits and pieces back, but we survived! What’s it mean to be Native American in America?”
Pausing, he adds, “What if, at Indian Market, you had to trade for everything? Like someone wanted to barter one of my sculptures for a year’s worth of work on my truck.” He laughs. “Done and done! Imagine how amazing that would be! And that’s a Native concept.”
Cannupa and Ginger, his wife, just had a baby, a cheerful, Buddha baby who’s going on five months now. As a new dad, he’s eager to admit that with the birth of their child, he’s experienced a shift.
“We are the universe,” he says. “The universe does not want itself to fail. Therefore, it doesn’t want you to fail. If you ask it, it probably will help you out!” This isn’t a new concept for Cannupa—it’s how he’s lived his whole life, with passion, curiosity, a willingness to not know and see what emerges. The shift is, humor. “If you can’t laugh at all the absurdity,” he says, laughing, “you’re going to hold onto it that much longer, and that would be tragic.”
“Low-Rez: Native American Lowbrow Art”ran from August 17 to September 1, 2012 at Eggman and Walrus Art Emporium, which has two venues: 131 West San Francisco Street, First Floor and 130 West Palace Street, Second Floor near the downtown Santa Fe Plaza.
A list of upcoming shows with Cannupa’s work is also available online at http://cannupahanska.com/
Story by Gail Snyder
Photos by Kate Russell