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Breaking the Mold

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Bold and contemporary, Cannupa Hanska Luger’s mixed-media artwork offers a fresh take on Southwestern and native themes

By Danielle Stein Chizzik • Photography by Gabriella Marks

Artist Cannupa Hanska Luger and his mixed-media Reliquary series, now on exhibition at Duhesa Gallery in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Artist Cannupa Hanska Luger and his mixed-media Reliquary series, now on exhibition at Duhesa Gallery in Fort Collins, Colorado.

At any given time, Cannupa Hanska Luger has at least three projects in various stages of completion. “I’m the worst multitasker,” says the ceramic and mixed-media sculptor, who works out of a studio attached to the house he built last year for his wife, Ginger, and their two young sons in the mountains of Glorieta, just outside of Santa Fe. “But working with clay, multitasking is almost a necessity. Otherwise, you sit there and watch clay dry all day.”

It’s a necessity for a second reason: Luger, who was born on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota before his family moved to the Southwest (and whose first name is pronounced Channupa) is in serious demand. He currently has several works on display at Santa Fe’s Blue Rain, the gallery that has represented him for the last four years; he will be part of a group exhibition there in August. Recently, he finished a series called Reliquary, consisting of elaborately adorned clay skulls that he’s installing into trophy cases at Duhesa Gallery at Colorado State University. “I wanted to make a body of work based on bone and decay and lovely detritus — it’s something I always harken back to, the idea that there’s beauty in the transition of life to death.”

Luger’s Leave Me A Home.
Luger’s Leave Me A Home.

He also has works — including a sculpture of two figures with projectors hidden in their heads that cast out-of-sync pieces of conversation onto each other’s chests, a commentary on the lack of true communication in our digital age — at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. Meanwhile, collectors seem to be champing at the bit for more.

“I love his ideas,” says Blue Rain’s Denise Phetteplace. “They’re intellectually engaging. The first solo show of his that we produced was titled Eat Prey, Love, which was a series of elegantly modeled predatory animals that were intertwined with their prey, frozen in a primal moment. It was hard to look away from them.” For another show, at Santa Fe’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Luger made sculptures of literal stereos, which he adorned with kitschy, colorful accents — feathers, dream catchers — that people routinely associate with Native Americans. “I realized when I did that series that, at their core, stereotypes are one person trying to understand another,” Luger says. “The problem is when you stop digging and start just using icons as representative.”

But for all the depth and cleverness of his work, Luger insists that the concepts are the easy part of the equation. “Having ideas is all good and fine, but what I really love is the process of building, of challenging myself to push together materials that don’t naturally go together, of making things that are aesthetically provocative and pleasing,” he says. “I’d rather be recognized as a craftsman than an artist. We’re all sensitive artists. But there’s a level of practice and commitment that comes with being a craftsman.”

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