The year was 1862. The Dakota Sioux people had been living on temporary reservations in southwestern Minnesota. Settlers had been carving up more and more of their territory, and the federal government pressured the tribe to give up their hunting grounds. Those who adopted non-Native farming practices saw their crops decimated by cutworms that year, and the people were facing starvation. They had difficulty getting extensions of credit for goods from local traders to help stave off the growing famine. Provisions expected from the federal government seldom arrived. Animosity and resentment soon boiled over when a small band of warriors, returning from an unsuccessful hunt, were caught stealing eggs from a white settlement. A fight broke out and five of the settlers were killed. Expecting retaliation, Taoyateduta (Little Crow), a chief and spokesman for the Mdewakanton Dakota and the negotiator of the treaties of Mendota (1851) and Yankton (1858), led his people in a bloody uprising. More than 500 settlers lost their lives. At least 150 Dakota warriors, possibly more, lost theirs.

Santa Fe-based artist Paul Pletka first heard this story — told to him by his father Howard Johnson — as a boy of six or seven when he was home sick in bed. It was more than just a tale told to regale the young Pletka, whose head then swam with romantic visions of pioneer-era adventure on the Western frontier. It was about his own family history. Although some of the Dakota tried to protect their Anglo neighbors, his ancestors were caught in the melee.

“My great-great-grandparents were farmers in southern Minnesota in the mid-1800s,” he said. “They barely managed to escape. They joined a wagon train of people that were fleeing. There was only one rifle among the group.” The wagon train was on its way to safety at Fort Snelling in Hennepin County, Minnesota, when, according to Pletka, they stopped for a rest, looked down at the road, and saw a severed hand still clutching a snuff box. “They narrowly missed being discovered by a mounted group of Native warriors,” he said. “It was a harrowing time.”

The story had a profound impact on Pletka. It is recounted in his monograph Paul Pletka: Imagined Wests by author Amy Scott, chief curator and Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross curator of visual arts at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. Published by University of Oklahoma Press and designed by the Santa Fe-based Michael Motley, Imagined Wests has won awards for best art book and best in show at the 2018 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards in November. An exhibition entitled Paul Pletka: Converging Faiths in the New World opens at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts on April 12, 2019.

The effect of non-Native populations on the indigenous peoples of America became an abiding theme of Pletka’s work. Over 150 pages of color plates reflect Pletka’s lifelong interest in the clash of, as well as the interplay between, Native and non-Native cultures. “Amy did a really good job,” Pletka said. “I’m not a great interview subject and she interviewed me several times for this. I’ve known her for some time. Then I had to write up an artist statement, which is something I had avoided for years.”

Pletka was born in San Diego in 1946. At the age of eleven, he moved with his family to Grand Junction, Colorado. “There he became absorbed in the sense of history that permeated the surrounding landscape of canyons and mesas,” writes Scott in her accompanying essay “Paul Pletka: Mythical Past, Material Present.” Pletka had a natural ability for drawing, an activity that had occupied him since he was five years old. This talent evolved over the decades to become an exploration of his cultural inheritance. “That has been a major theme in my work, although it’s been under the surface for a while,” he said.

In 1964, he enrolled at Arizona State University on an art scholarship, “but he found the fine art program generally uninspiring and left a year later,” Scott writes. He then attended Mesa College in Grand Junction and Colorado State University. In college, he continued to hone his skills as a figurative artist, resisting the emphasis on abstraction that dominated the department at the time. Under printmaker Jack Orman, who became a mentor to Pletka, his consummate ability for representationalism further developed. Scott writes, “From Orman he learned patience in draftsmanship; appreciation for the physical properties of art materials, which characterizes Pletka’s work to this day.”

Native American subject matter formed the gist of his output in the early years. At the age of nineteen, he received a choice commission from the Western Colorado Center for the Arts: a series of paintings on the principal Native cultures of the New World. “That helped put me through college,” he said. “I think I was paid $100 a painting. In those days that was a lot of money.” But other influences, gleaned in college, would impact his sense of composition and his growing interest in exploring his European heritage. Flemish art and the art of late medieval Europe had a profound impact, especially the brutal Flemish depictions of the Passion of Christ and the grotesqueries in the surreal visions of Hieronymus Bosch. “It was unspoken, not overt, but I got an appreciation of the absurd and sort of the dark side of the world, which might or might not be unpredictable,” he said. “That stance embraces ritual, religion, superstition.”

His own explorations of religious subject matter, such as his depictions of the crucified Christ, reflect horror, violence, and brutality. Rendered with a baroque and ornate sensibility, they are vivid, unsparing compositions that show torn flesh and exposed bone in graphic detail. One senses that the emphasis on the macabre in some of these religious-themed works is not for purposes of lurid sensationalism but to capture a sense of the spiritual truths illustrated by the story of Christ’s suffering. That very aspect was what struck Pletka when he first encountered German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald’s crucifixion scene Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516) in an art history class. Scott quotes Pletka as saying, “The way the body was racked, bruised, punctured ... I couldn’t imagine how any artist could actually execute work that magnificently emotional and spectacularly rendered.”

Religious or ritual-themed paintings and indigenous subjects aren’t mutually exclusive in the work of Pletka. Both form the complex fabric of his often busy, vibrant compositions. His Los Matachines from 2011, for instance, depicts seven Native figures engaged in a dance form derived from Moorish Spain and Christian sources. Many of his paintings are a confluence of indigenous and European motifs with historic and contemporary allusions. On the whole, his works show a layering of cultural references and ideas. Some of the figures in his more crowded scenes can only be partially glimpsed, their bodies hidden from view by the figures in front of them. Yet for each individual, the artist is careful to establish distinct patterns of dress, attitude, and activity. No two figures are alike. Some are turned away from the viewer entirely, or moving out of the picture plane, indicating that their actions are not self-contained within the canvas but extend beyond it. In Los Matachines, he gives us only a partial glimpse of the dance, and we get the distinct impression that there are other figures present but not pictured. The backgrounds, by contrast, are starkly rendered or left purposely vague and undetailed. “If there was a background that needed to be natural, my tendency was to do the least amount possible while still having the painting come together,” he said. “The background is in the thrall of the figures inhabiting the painting and they take precedence.”

Unlike painters of the early 20th century, who sought to document what they saw as the waning of indigenous ways and customs, his paintings are not ethnographic. They are ambiguous, uncanny, and at times broach the phantasmagoric. He sometimes merges the animate with the inanimate, such as in a series of pole-mounted, lifelike figures — the heads and torsos of patron saints and other religious icons. For example, his painting of Nuestra Señora de Antigua, made after a trip to Mexico, looks like an icon that one might carry aloft during a procession, like a bulto. But the naturalistic appearance of this rendition of the Virgin suggests that she is not, like a wooden sculpture, so static. Although the gold paint on her hands is flaking, revealing what looks like blond wood beneath, her tears seem real. Her robes are embellished with milagros, notes, photographs, and other personal items pinned to them by her solicitors. She is also adorned with artifacts that recall Mexico’s colonial past. The fact that Nuestra, as well as other paintings he made in the same vein, appears mounted, as though she were a specimen in a museum exhibit, is a commentary on how cultural institutions quantify indigenous art — not as the vital expression of living, breathing, evolving traditions, but as belonging to an antiquated past.

“I had never been out of the United States and, finally, along with my wife Nancy and some friends, I visited Mexico in 1981,” he said. “All of these influences in my work — family, heritage, religion, and the Native cultures — suddenly came together visually in Mexico. The colors were strong. I visited several murals in Mexico City and murals by Diego Rivera at the Palace of Cortés in Cuernavaca. I saw a procession with a man dragging an enormous cross. Mexico is where the Old World — Europe — collided with the New World and that produced all kinds of terrific visuals and rituals. As an artist, it was a great thing for me to see.”

But, a few months after returning to the United States, Pletka suffered a severe back injury while helping a friend renovate his home. The injury left him unable to travel long distances and, to this day, he suffers from chronic pain. “I can no longer travel by plane,” he said. “I could never manage to return to Mexico. That seminal experience is the source of so much of my work since then.” ◀

Paul Pletka: Imagined Wests  by Amy Scott is published by University of Oklahoma Press.

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