b. sakata garo

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May 14, 2006
Art Pick of the Week

Plenty to eyeball

Frank LaPena's work interprets dreams and legends
By Victoria Dalkey, The Sacramento Bee Art Correspondent

"Ancient Guardians", part of the exhibit at b. sakata garo, is based on photographs that Frank LaPena took in the Four Corners region of the Southwest, site of anicent petroglyphs. b. sakata garo
"Songs and ceremonies are what keep the world going," says American Indian artist Frank LaPena as he surveys an exhibition of his paintings and mixed-media works at b. sakata garo before heading up to Auburn to take part in a tribal ceremony.

In addition to being a nationally known painter, poet and printmaker, LaPena is also a traditional singer and dancer of ceremonies sacred to his own Wintu-Nomtipom people and the Mountain Maidu whose rituals he learned from the Concow Maidu elder and artist Frank Day.

Descended from indigenous mountain river Indians of Northern California, LaPena was cut off from his cultural heritage at the age of 5, in 1942, when his father died. His family was broken up, and LaPena and his sister were taken from their mother and placed in an Indian boarding school. There, in order to facilitate their assimilation into the dominant culture, they were not taught their language, culture or history.

Placed in a foster home when he was in the eighth grade, LaPena had few connections with his Indian culture until he began searching for his roots after graduating from high school. Through relatives and friends he made at boarding school he became familiar with many Indian traditions, but it was only after moving to Redding as an adult to raise his own family that he became politically involved with his own tribe.

Since then he has become a nationally known scholar and ethnographic consultant who is often called upon to lecture and advise institutions on matters concerning American Indian and, in particular, California Indian affairs. An expert in his field, LaPena taught art and ethnic studies and served for 30 years as director of Native American Studies at California State University, Sacramento, where he retired as professor emeritus in 2002.

Though LaPena is best known for his vibrant paintings relating to Wintu and Maidu ceremonies and rituals, in his most recent work he has turned his attention to images found in several "rock art" sites in the Southwest. While LaPena has been going to the Southwest since the 1970s to document the works of both emerging and established American Indian artists on behalf of the International Native-American Council of Arts in New York, it wasn't until 2003 that he was able to visit sites in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. It was there that 8,000-10,000-year-old petroglyphs were carved by native peoples on rocks and cliffs.

"These are viable, living communications from the ancients," La Pena says of the strange and haunting figures and symbols found in Utah and New Mexico.

The images in "Ancient Guardians," "Midnight Rainbow" and other paintings in the show were taken directly from photographs LaPena made at the sites. The abstract figures and animals, he believes, were put there to document things that actually happened and to send the stories of the peoples who made them into the future.

He admits, though, that no one really knows what they mean or how they got there. While the rainbow bridge depicted in one painting is not much higher than LaPena's head, other figures are gigantic, soaring up the sides of cliffs and dwarfing the people who come to see them.

"You can tell that the images were created over a long time span because you see different layers and overlapping images," LaPena says. "I believe they were made by people of the same culture in places they regarded as sacred."

Mimicking the overlapping and layering, LaPena's paintings bring together images found at different sites in new configurations and intense colors. Using rich pigments of red, yellow and blue in "Songs and Ceremonies," LaPena places symbols of the snake and coyote clans under a frieze of hunting figures and next to a pair of mysterious guardian figures.

Searing reds and red oranges are used to define the magical beings in "Midnight Rainbow," a large painting of the rainbow bridge and the many layers of images inscribed under and over it. Bears, lizards, deer, owls, hunters, dancers and spiritual beings with dotted bodies coexist with foot prints, spirals, meanders and energy lines on a vast plain in the dark of night.

"It's midnight when they've come out to play," LaPena says. "I wanted to use strong color to convey the magical kingdom of spirit beings."

The spiral, signifying the life force, and the cross, symbolizing the four directions, run throughout LaPena's work. In addition to the rock art pieces, the show at sakata includes images of Mount Shasta, which is sacred to California Indians; the Bear Dance and Big Head ceremonies of the Maidu; a pair of self-portraits with birds and flowers; and personal narratives.

"Edge of the Earth People: Protecting Ourselves" is based on a dream LaPena had recently. "Edge of the Earth" people, he says, are people who don't share the same values and are therefore a threat. In the painting, a baby symbolizing innocence is protected by a guardian bird, while a native man shelters his head from the forces of death above him.

Similarly ominous is "In the Fourth World," which is a reference to the Hopi legend that the Earth has changed three times before and we are now living in the fourth world. Once again La Pena brings together spirit beings, symbolic signs and contemporary danger signals such as the fallout shelter sign that was prevalent in the days of the Cold War and 1950s bomb shelters.

"The Fragrance of Flowers," on the other hand, is a joyous and sensual painting that LaPena says is the most personal work in the show. Arranged around the Matisse-like, delicately pink torso of a woman, morning glories, poppies and star flowers abound, infusing the image with their purity, beauty and metaphoric fragrance.

All of LaPena's paintings tell stories, either tribal or personal, but you don't need to know them to enjoy the works. An intuitive composer and brilliant natural colorist, LaPena satisfies us on a purely visual level. As he once said about one of his works, "It's an eyeball thing."

Frank LaPena: Paintings and Mixed Media Works

WHERE: b. sakata garo, 923 20th St.

WHEN: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through June 3

INFORMATION: (916) 447-4276