Entering the Fifth World: "Namingha Family: Landscape, Form, and Light"

According to Hopi legend, Spider Woman created twin beings from clay, a mixture of her saliva and bits of earth. One twin was charged with solidifying the Earth, the other with sending out sound, echoes of the Creator. When these duties were finished, one went south and the other north. Their new job: rotating an Earth finally fit for plants and animals, and eventually, for human inhabitants. Both were charged with keeping order in the world as life appeared. Both were endowed with creative wisdom.

Welcome to the Fourth World, the vastly populated, high-tech world we know. According to Hopi prophecy, we're teetering on the brink here. Not a brink — the brink. And the Fifth World sounds pretty scary, depending on one's level of spiritual consciousness and service to the Great Spirit.

One of man's first mistakes was turning his back on Spider Woman's creative wisdom and embracing material goods. Material goods won't fare well in the Fifth World. But what has been created with mindful respect and spiritual consciousness commands a different attention altogether. One family's such creations are on display in "Namingha Family: Landscape, Form and Light," through January at the Heard Museum.

Dan Namingha's Tranquility
Courtesy of the Heard Museum
Dan Namingha's Tranquility
Michael Namingha. Gummy Bear Wall Paper.
Michael Namingha. Gummy Bear Wall Paper.

Dan Namingha's paintings dominate this show. They are bigger and bolder than his sons' creations. A family resemblance among the works here is subtle, if it's there at all. Dan has been making art for more than 40 years. He started painting as a kid in the Tewa-Hopi Village of Polacca. If you've seen the mesas between Window Rock and Tuba City or Keams Canyon, even in pictures, you begin to understand the influence of this sacred landscape on a young Hopi painter. In fact, the Naminghas are great-great-(then great again)-grandchildren of renowned Hopi potter Nampeyo, who was born in 1860 and raised one village over in Hano, on First Mesa. This family's artistic heritage and legacy clearly extend beyond gallery walls. (Actually, the legacy literally extends around the corner in an alcove exhibit, "Elegance from Earth: Hopi Pottery." Advice: See this history lesson while you're there.)

Namingha's wall-size acrylic on canvas Kachina Symbolism #4 dominates the space (be sure to look at it and the rest of the show again from the mezzanine upstairs). As with most of Namingha's work, the colors — mustard yellow, purple, turquoise, red, black — are rich and bold. Jackson Pollock's influence speaks in the texture of this work. Namingha's carefully placed rectangles — paintings within the painting — are filled with muted uniform half moons. And, as with most of Namingha's work, the figures are abstract.

Adolph Gottlieb is another of Namingha's influences, which is clear in this and other work. The symbolism (color is symbolic, too) is loud, while not always clear to all of us. That's okay. Sometimes show signage explains the symbolism, or you might catch bits of a docent's lecture as he narrates for museum-goers. The symbols in this 2002 painting are reminiscent of emoticons — bars, dots, and parentheses that form neat alignments. Even ever-present spirals (Namingha's usually have long tails) form the ubiquitous @. He is speaking to the spirituality of the Hopi culture, clearly. We can't help making our own postmodern, or Fifth World, leaps. Hopi culture is both ancient and postmodern, after all.

The nearest painting on an adjacent wall, another large canvas, is Cardinal Directions #17, an abstract breakdown of Hopi color symbolism (yellow = north; red = south; blue = west; white = east). Dan has painted a wide, blood-red frame around smaller frames in the center of the canvas. Each edge of the smaller frames is composed of its according cardinal direction color. Those lines frame what appears to be glowing yellow light at dead center. It all has a looking-down-a-long-hallway effect, and we're pulled into, or drawn to, that glow.

Dan's haunting landscapes pack a different punch, even though the colors and lines remain bold and the shapes abstract. Clouds and the shadows they cast are characters, either thick bars of steel gray at the top of the canvas, hovering spacecraft, or playful, even comic, contour lines. Do not miss the installation of works in the mezzanine. Inspired by his own sketchbooks, these are Namingha's most recent works. which represent a departure from the colorful, symbol-packed work downstairs. Here, he says, he breaks down images into their most elemental parts, much as writers break down paragraphs into words.

Arlo Namingha, Dan's older son, is a sculptor working in bronze, stone, and wood, and all mediums are represented here. His Sandhills is installed next to Dan's Dualities — both large bronzes — and it's interesting to compare and contrast father's works to son's. Sandhills is a large sculpture with movable pieces that can stand or lie flat, changeable as landscape in real time. Arlo, too, incorporates Hopi symbolism with a great circle representing the sun and time as it passes. Notches represent cardinal directions and passages in Hopi dwellings. A guide remarked to a tour group that Arlo, dissatisfied with the installation, means for the sculpture to move every day. There it sits, though, clearly and frustratingly off-limits on its platform.

Many of Arlo's other works are meant to move, yet they're encased in giant Lucite boxes. It's a shame (although in the museum's defense, an understandable one) that we cannot manipulate the Indiana limestone and Texas shell stone parallelograms and thick books of his "Balance" and "Fifth World" series. Arlo wants to have a dialogue with us or for us to have a dialogue with ourselves. We are supposed to create our own compositions. We are supposed to make choices, then see the consequences of those choices, as we move in the many directions among the many distractions of this Fourth World on the verge. He wants us to play Jenga with his creations and, by extension, with our own lives. Go ahead, pull out a single block, see what happens, his works says. Despite the heavy medium, Arlo's message is subtly suggestive, working away in us like the fossils in his Texas shell stone.

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