Much of James Luna's work is distinctly Native American, but the contemporary artist isn't churning out traditional pottery or Kachina dolls. The edgy, half-Mexican, half-Luiseño artist is known for his politically charged, often humorous installations and performance art. His best-known work includes the controversial "Artifact Piece" that he originally staged in the late '80s for the Museum of Man in Balboa Park. Dressed in a loin cloth, he lay in a glass case for hours as museum visitors ogled him, reading informational cards describing the source of scars on his body, mostly results of alcohol-fueled incidents.
"Physically, spiritually and mentally, that piece was devastating, because you're so vulnerable being looked at like that," Luna recalls, giving CityBeat a quick preview of I Con, his new photography exhibition opening with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, March 20, at Mesa College Art Gallery, alongside an exhibition by former collaborator Richard A. Lou. Lou will discuss his work, and Luna will present a 20-minute performance piece immediately after the reception in Room G101.
Like much of Luna's work, "Artifact Piece" carried a message about how mainstream culture chooses to include or ignore Native American culture. He wanted to draw attention to the way museums tend to treat native cultures as if they're a collection of artifacts from dead people, focusing on their history without acknowledging their place in contemporary culture.
The photographs in Luna's new show continue to prod at the notion of mainstream culture's inclusion and exclusion of American Indians, asking viewers to dig deeper into the meaning behind his whimsical work. He calls the photos in the show "Performographs"—performance art captured with a camera. Many of the pieces start with a written script or concept. He boils it down to a solitary moment and then freezes it in a stylized, narrative photo.
In one series, for example, Luna, who lives on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in North County but rarely shows locally, juxtaposes images of himself next to historical photos of Ishi, the last member of the Yana tribe of Northern California.
"The point of the work is, if you don't know about this man, you should," Luna explains. "If you want to know more, go look it up. I'm not going to spoon-feed people."