The Natives are Restless and showing their art in Rolling Hills Estates
“Native” is an ambitious show for South Bay Contemporary. Most local galleries feature work by – no surprise here – local artists, but curator and gallery director Peggy Zask has on this occasion cast her net far and wide. Her new exhibition, opening Saturday, highlights current work by living artists with tribal affiliations and/or Native American blood.
To generalize, there is a sense here of men and women in touch with their roots, and so the viewer may expect to find the primal and the fundamental, and a strong element of being well grounded in the natural world.
For example, Gail Werner says that her affiliations are with the Cupeño, Luiseño, and Diegueño tribes of Southern California. Our mountains and desert landscapes influence her, and among her inspirations are the creation stories and traditional “bird songs” of the California Native Americans.
In these tales, she says, the people are on the move and their journeys seem to parallel the migration of the birds – the birds have the better view, but there are hardships for all. Werner’s “Bird Song” is a work that seizes the eye and keeps us looking for more comparisons since we are all creatures nesting on the same planet.
The Oomaka Tokatakiya, or Future Generations Ride, is an annual pilgrimage on horseback, beginning on Dec. 15 near Bullhead, South Dakota, and ending nearly 300 miles away on Dec. 29, at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. It can be a grueling, bitterly cold two weeks in the saddle. The majority of the riders are from the three Lakota (Sioux) reservations: Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, and Pine Ridge. Ken Marchionno has participated in the ride several times and his photographs will be on view in “Native.”
Although Sheridan MacKnight was born and raised in Manhattan Beach, her maternal grandmother, Eva Flying Earth, as well as other relatives, lived and still reside in the Standing Rock reservation.
MacKnight has four paintings in the show, all completed within the past year. “Boarding School Girls” is a reminder that times were tragic for young Natives in the early 20th century, with despair a constant companion.
“The eagle feathers were painted iconically to represent strength and healing,” MacKnight says. “My pieces are a homage to all my relations for their incredible strength and endurance through immeasurable hardships, but also to achieve an image (that reveals) the dignity and grace.”
The busiest person at the opening night receptions is likely to be Yatika Starr Fields. His paintings are often large, and his colorful abstractions are reminiscent, he says, of landscapes rolling with movement. Fields not only created work specifically for this show, he’ll be creating art at the show as well:
“During the opening I’ll be doing a live painting,” he says. “I’ve been doing live painting at various events and venues all over the world for the last five years.
“In this demonstration I’m inviting the gallery-goers to see my style of painting come to life.” Fields says that it’s the atmosphere that usually makes the painting or directs the outcome – and thus it rises to the level of performance art where chance and impulse are key factors.
An inquiring mind
Several of the artists in “Native” are worthy of being singled out, but the featured artist is Gretchen Sagan, an Inupiaq from Alaska who is, however, coming to us by way of New Mexico where she is currently an artist in residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute, having been selected by the Anchorage-based Rasmuson Foundation, whose mission, dispersed through grant-making and initiatives, is to support and promote arts and culture in Alaska – and apparently to share it with the Lower 48.
By phone and by email, Sagan communicated many of the underlying ideas about her art and what motivates her:
“In all of my work I explore our connectedness and who I am in relation to the world.”
Although her anchor may in fact be Anchorage, Sagan went to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, for her art education, where she received her B.F.A. degree from the Eesti Kunstiakadeemia, or the Estonian State Art Academy. Although she returned to Alaska over ten years ago, that merely signaled the beginning, not an end in itself, and she’s been on the move – as an artist in international shows and as a curator – ever since.
As she says in relation to “Migration,” a series of paintings in which she explores the seasoned journeys undertaken by animals and humans, “Migration is a phenomenon intrinsic to our land and cultures and extremely important to our life in the North… The friction of distance is one that I’ve had to deal with throughout my life as I am constantly on the move.” And then she asks the big questions: “How do we orient ourselves? Is our navigation system pre-programmed? How do we know when to go? Where is home if you are on a journey?”
Not surprisingly, her quest, and the answers it provides, differ from those of us in Hermosa Beach where migration consists of walking across the warm sand with a surfboard, catching a few waves, and then walking back to one’s car or, like one esteemed newspaper publisher, to his permanent cabana half a block from the strand.
“My Native heritage is intrinsic to my work,” Sagan says, “as it certainly defines who I am and how I see the world. I can say my heritage predisposes me to being very sensitive to my environment and open to sensations of what is happening around me.
“From this perspective,” she adds, “it is a life of observation and interaction more with the atmosphere than with the physical world.”
Lest this sound a bit smug and self-assured, we should bear in mind that Sagan, like most of us, often confronts the world with little idea of what awaits just around the corner. As she said elsewhere, “curiosity, confusion and self-discovery inform my work.”
What this translates into is that an artist must take chances.
“The working title for the show,” Sagan says, meaning the one opening Saturday, “is ‘Coming Up for Air.’ My latest paintings explore our moments of vulnerability as we go from one situation to the next.” What she’s referring to is the risk factor. As she says with regard to her “Scratch Game” series, “Overwhelmingly the odds are against us but at the same time we are compelled to take a chance… The hope of discovery allows us to soar higher, and bring infinite rewards, and may also deal a blow when it comes to nothing. To win one must take the risk.”
Gretchen Sagan is a gifted young woman with passion and a sense of purpose. She’ll be at the reception and one should take the chance (but there’s no risk!) to meet her and to admire her work. This may be as close to the spirit of Alaska as many of us are likely to get.
Additional artists in “Native” include Andrea Ashkie, Gregg Deal, Patrick Hubbell, Jaque Fragua, Joan Kane, and Paul Rowley.
Also, this month’s featured “Portrait of the Artist” is Marie Thibeault, a Long-Beach based painter whose work is unique, compelling, and praised by everyone who’s seen it. The photograph of the artist – as with previous honorees Ray Carofano and Ellen Cantor – is by Gloria Plascencia.
There is plenty to see and take in. As Sagan notes, and she could be speaking for all of the artists in the show, “I invite the viewer to relate with my work at any level, whether it be material, cerebral, or emotional.”
If you go:
What: Opening reception for “Native: Contemporary Art”
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: South Bay Contemporary / Zask Gallery
550 Deep Valley Drive, Rolling Hills Estates
Duration: Through June 8
To learn more: (310) 429-0973 or