DENVER — PAINTER Dan Namingha's landscapes and figures derive as much from abstract expressionism as from the elegant history of his own people's creative product. Mr. Namingha is proud of his Hopi and Tewa heritage, and his pueblo culture is the single greatest inspiration behind his work. But his paintings cannot be easily pigeonholed, and there is nothing routine about his sensibility. He has managed to reconcile in his art his traditional heritage with American art history of the 20th century.
Mr. Namingha lives a quiet, intense life with his wife and two sons in a magnificent house he designed in the high desert country outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. A handsome, soft-spoken man, he speaks of his work with the modest dignity of one who is impelled to his labor by the sheer love of it.
Namingha is the great-great grandson of the famous Hopi potter, Nampeyo. From the village of Pollacca, at the precocious age of 16, he entered the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. His principal teacher was a Hopi artist who had a way ``of bringing more out of me. It was just the way she asked questions. She would take your particular idea and ask you to extend it, take it further....
``At the same time there were so many different tribes represented we all had something different to lay out for each other....And there was a particular energy [at IAIA] at that time. In the '60s we all recognized Indian art was going way beyond what it had been. We were all trying to further it ... steeled by the spirit of our culture and our heritage.''
``There were political and [religious] statements being made. We were right at the heart of the change, that generation.'' Fortunately, the American public was also beginning to question stereotypes about Indians and other minorities, and that changing social consciousness added to the excitement.
NAMINGHA'S IAIA training was followed by a scholarship to the American Academy of Art in Chicago. While in Chicago, he discovered the work of Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollack, Hans Hofmann, Willem De Kooning, and other abstract expressionists. ``These are the works that inspired me.'' After a stint in the Marines, Namingha moved back to Santa Fe, where at age 21, he already could live on the sale of his work.
Namingha has combined icons of his culture - desert landscapes (including his pueblo), Kachina dancers, petroglyphs, and other symbols with powerful abstract expressionist brush strokes and bold color in many paintings. Expressionism, he says, communicates the energies of life. ``It may appear chaotic to the eye at first, but there is composition. Like jazz, that composition is very, very complex, very ordered. Sometimes you can't make sense out of it at first. It's there.
``While I was out at Hopi recently I saw one of the dances there.... When I came back to the studio I painted that movement and rhythm in abstract form. Those images stay in my mind as movement and color. You're not always conscious of where the images come from when you paint them, but sometimes after I finish, I start remembering.... The sense of the sacredness of life comes through in my work.''
Namingha often spends 12 to 15 hours a day in the studio for weeks at a time. He welcomes his sons and encourages them to experiment with his materials. But he also returns to Hopi to participate in religious observances. He contributes his time and his art to Futures for Children, a nonprofit leadership program for Indian children. He has taught art classes and hopes to teach at IAIA because he is conscious of what he gained there.
While Dan Namingha is a star in the world of Indian art, he is becoming well known as a mainstream artist. His paintings have been collected by American embassies worldwide. His work has traveled and has been purchased by museums, corporations, and private collectors in Europe and the US.
``Dan Namingha is making a valuable contribution to communication on the common ground,'' says Sandy Ballatore, contemporary art curator of the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts. ``I mean a valuable contribution to that multicultural identity we all live. He is American and he is Hopi and Tewa - none of those cultures is exclusive of the others. He's worked out a system to bring the best part of all his cultural backgrounds together.... He has to resolve his art making, his citizenship as an American and a s an American Indian, and he does.''