The Rich Spirituality of Dan Namingha by Thomas Hoving
Dan Namingha, the well-known Hopi-Tewa painter and sculptor, has climbed to a new plateau of maturity, dynamism and excellence. He combines naturalism and minimalism to achieve an uncanny spirituality in his canvases depicting the landscapes of New Mexico, the pleasing complexity of pueblos, and the rituals of the Hopi.
Two current exhibitions, at the J. Cacciola Galleries in New York and at Nimán Fine Art in Santa Fe, indicate that he has clearly become not only the most important Native American artist working today but also a force to be reckoned with in world contemporary art.
The shows also celebrate the publication of the first monograph on Namingha, The Art of Dan Namingha (Abrams), written by yours truly. A special dozen of these books are being offered exclusively by Artnet.com. They have been signed by me and the artist (curiously enough, this seems to be the first time this has been done). Plus, Namingha has embellished the flyleaf of 50 copies with an original black ink drawing. (By the way I got a flat fee for writing The Art of Dan Namingha and will receive no royalties or further compensation for it.)
Volumes numbered 1/50 through 12/50 are available exclusively via the web in the Artnet.com Bookstore. Books with drawings 13/50 through 50/50 will be available at Nimán Fine Art.
I first met Dan ten years ago in Santa Fe. It was as if his works were waiting for me -- to save me from the artistic dreck that largely populates the town.
I'd flown my small plane from New York to the southwest for the first time. What a heady flight out of Denver! We picked our way through the low passes to Taos and on to Mesa Verde, the Canyon lands and the Arches National park where the ground dropped off some 3,000 feet in an instant as we flew into the picturesque canyon (the one into which Thelma and Louise plunged.)
We marveled over Chaco Mesa, Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, the heavenly rose-red buttes of Sedona and Canyon de Chelly with those down-to-China cliffs decorated with ancient dwellings and huge patches of gold-rust colored "desert paint" and the frighteningly beautiful peak of Mount Taylor on the way into Santa Fe.
It was spring and I was overwhelmed by the startling colors of what I thought was going to be just a dull, beige desert. God, the land was made emerald and aquamarine by the budding flowers and emerging grasses! It was as if the gods had dropped liquid gems on the desert floor, ranging throughout every color of the spectrum set off by looming black clouds, sparkling rain virages looking like diamond-studded crowns, and, at sunset, those vast magenta cliff walls.
Santa Fe was a letdown -- the opposite of this glorious nature, a touristy, commercial mélange. And the art -- what crap! O'Keeffe wannabees. Juan O'Gorman fakeroonies. Hardedge landscapes. Airport-style kachina dolls.
I was disgusted. Then I met a professional guide who took me to various pueblos and to a gallery in town where I was told I'd be lifted by the paintings and sculpture of a young artist, touched by genius.
I sure was. The works hit me as the crystallization of every breathtaking sight I'd seen on our trip. I saw paintings like the following:
* Hopi Series #1, 1995. Namingha says, "The jet black lozenge is a storm cloud and the thin, gentle red line curving downward towards the bottom represents a sudden break in the storm that's swiftly moving away."
* Hopi Series #2. This is the coming together of minimalism and realism. The flaming upper part is a sunset. The black is a rich formalistic conceit. Namingha rubbed sand into the black to give it a magical texture. The grayish horizontal line in the middle is purely a formal element to break up the black and make it more interesting. "At the bottom there are brightly colored palette-knife slashes of reds, yellows, greens, grays, mauves all jumbled and mixed up evoking what you see on the desert floor or on the side of a mesa cliff."
* Hesot Doll Series #1, 1990. Hesot is a Hopi word meaning something of the far distant past. This vibrant painting represents a very old wooden kachina doll. The paint has peeled off so much that the kachina can't be identified. He finds strength and mystery in these old carvings. "I used thick paint and scratched into it to indicate the withered, worn quality of the wood with the paint peeling off a weathered doll that has survived time. My aim was to give it life by using vivid colors: they symbolize strength."
My particular favorites published in the book are:
* Hekytwi Mesa, 1994. Here one is entranced by a deep black sky supported by a slice of vibrant blue, which symbolizes the sky being revealed as the storm clouds lift. The mesa itself is deep magenta on the left to evoke the light reflecting off the richly colored surface of the rock -- I saw such a natural phenomenon from my plane. And rust on the right, which is the passage of the emerging sun. The scumbled and palette-knifed textures in glorious salmon, yellow, magenta, orange, blue, blue-white and green in the foreground represent the various textures on the land on a Hopi reservation.
* And ALL the sculptures, especially Montage I, 1998, on page 150. His three-dimensional works (some of which are painted wood) are precise, monumental, peaceful still yet bursting with movement, delicately patinated and, like all Namingha's works, serenely spiritual.
The Namingha show at the J. Cacciola Gallery runs through June 10 and the one at Nimán Fine Art through the summer. The Nimán gallery shows only his works in an installation that changes regularly.
THOMAS HOVING is editorial director of artnet.com.