I could go on about why I love Eyre's movie about James' work, especially this shot, and James would expect me not to be quiet, but I just can't this morning. When an installation artist like James passes, the loss is too great to talk about immediately because it was James' use of his body and voice within his art space that can never be replaced, but later we will try as he did in making his Chapel for Pablo Tac. To feel that loss, I think James would say that home was more important than art, so at La Jolla there's a great piece missing this morning.
I want everyone "down the hill" to have a sense of what we've all lost. I wrote the article below for The Union Tribune around 1995. It's not up to date because over the years James gave much more. Just a month ago after dinner he shared a movie he made using The Beach Boys' "In My Room."
James Luna told us, "we got it all...so tap it down." We will do so.
When James Luna says, "I'm a California dude," he doesn't mean that he surfs. He means that he knows who he is. And who he is an installation/performance artist who uses traditional Native American art forms as well as surf music and video.
Ironically, much of Southern California does not know about Luna though he is nationally respected performance and multimedia artist. Luna may have performed and had his work in some the most prestigious museums in the United States--including The Whitney Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institute's Museum of Natural History--but he has never presented a performance piece in San Diego County where he is a member the Luiseño Indians at the La Jolla Reservation in North County (He has, however, exhibited installations at Centro Cultural de la Raza, and his "Artifact Piece" from the Museum of Man later gained international attention at The New Museum of Art's Decade Show in New York).
On August 21, The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in La Jolla will present Luna in a lecture/performance that brings local audiences as close to a Luna performance as they have ever been. Whether the evening at MCA concludes as Luna's performance did at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts--with the audience either standing on their feet or falling in worship at Luna's--is yet to be seen.
"Let's get this out front: theater is not what I am, though there are any number of similarities," Luna says. "Installation is very broad and that's one of its strengths. I approach it as I approach a painting. I don't think about acting. I am not a trained actor. But that's not to say that I don't script or monologue. I do, but it comes out of the art."
Many of Luna's monologues emerge from the objects he creates. As multimedia art, Luna's verbal expression cannot be separated from his visuals. He uses anything he can to get his point across. In his performance piece The Shameman, Luna portrays an enterprising shaman who sells objects that combine such disparate materials as condoms, a tennis racket, a cellular phone and a buffalo horn.
Many artists lecture on their work, but few move back and forth between two-dimensional and performance work as Luna does. Consequently, Luna's lectures are unusual. "James' lecture is unlike anything we've done," says MCA education curator Seonid MacArthur. "His use of sound, movement and music in his performance pieces will be new for us...he's not so much about ritual as he is about combining his heritage and sense of ritual with humor."
Luna's lectures did not always include performance. "I do this a lot and found that showing slides or video of a performance didn't do it," Luna says. At MCA, his lecture will include excerpts from Artifact Piece, Places for People to Meet and The Shameman.
"I am not a trained actor," Luna emphasizes. "I am a visual artist when I do a performance piece, which comes from a different place than where actors come from," Luna said. "And I am not just about Indian issues . . . that should be clear in Shameman because there were other issues in that piece. I'm a therapist, used car salesman and an evangelist."
Luna is a California dude of this century, if not the next: "I use pop imagery because I like it. It makes a nice soup, a blend. . . . Political art gets caught up in being the victim and loses sight of the whole person."
Humor is a good portion of Luna's recipe. "I've had people come to see me thinking I'm going to do a nice tom-tom dance. And as I unload, they realize this isn't what they came to hear," Luna says. "But they have every right to leave--or to laugh."
The laughter at his performance of Shame-Man at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts was loud and long, coming from an audience primarily made up of Indians. Those who came to see him dance to a tom-tom instead saw him fancydance to Marvin Gaye's "I'm Too Sexy."
Luna asked the audience to hold hands: "It's not easy to hold hands. That's the feel of humanity," he told the crowd." Touch that white person. Come on you rich Arizona Indian."
In "The Shameman," Luna's sense of humor cuts deeply in two directions: first against "shamans" who sell spirituality and secondly whites who buy it as a commodity. America may not be a happier place since European contact complicated land, language and religion. But at least America is a funnier place with white people here.
In "Notes on My Art Work #674," Luna writes, "I am not a healer but can be considered a clown." And clowning has its own healing power; as Luna says humor is "the first step in recovery.""That's an Indianism, to be able to laugh at ourselves," Luna said, discussing the sharp satire in Shameman. "We are really more alike than we are different." It's the humor in Luna's work that lets the audience get close enough to feel where the painful wounds are between us.