Paul Pletka

Paul Pletka painting in his home studio in Santa Fe, NM

It’s been ages since I wrote a proper blog post (about 3 months) and even longer since I did a proper art post. I’ve been wanting to talk about the Our Lord, The One Who Is Flayed painting for ages, ever since I first saw it a year or so ago in the Phoenix Art Museum. I had never heard of the artist until I saw the three-paneled work below. Paul Pletka was born in 1946 in San Diego, California and has made his name painting Native Americans, especially those from the American Southwest.  His style is neo-surrealistic and has been described as “both realistic and deeply spiritual, being highly sensitive to the inner thoughts of Native Americans.” Paul has a local connection to Phoenix by going to nearby AZ State University. “Interestingly enough, Pletka has never taken a painting course. His focus in college was printmaking. Through an extensive process of experimentation, his heroic-sized visions of Indian mysticism are distinguished by exacting details that can only be achieved when technique is coupled with dedicated research.” He currently lives in New Mexico. 

I am always curious when someone outside of one cultural group decides to concentrate on something different (like Children’s author/illustrator Ezra Jack Keats being a white Jewish guy creating amazing books about African American and Hispanic children in the 1960-80s) , as I want to know why they have chosen to do this and is his work accepted by the group he is trying to interpret. The artist himself said this about his decision to paint predominantly Native Americans: “When I was a youngster and first became enchanted with Indian costume, lore and artifacts, I would sometimes pretend I was an Indian. I soon realized that was not intellectually reasonable. I am not an Indian. I am simply an interpreter.” He is considered one of the best painters on the subject and his work has been in exhibitions since 1964.

The painting below, While the Ravens Laughed, is one of his earlier works. It depicts the human form of the Hopi Crow Bride/Mother Kachina, aka Angwushahai-i. “Dolls and dancers representing the Crow Mother generally wear masks with ears of huge crow wings.” She is connected to the renewal/growth of corn crops in the spring. 

Paul Pletka - While the Ravens Laughed, 1976

While the Ravens Laughed, 1976

The piece below (here is the larger version) is probably one of my favorite ones from Phx Art Museum. It just draws your eye with the bright reds, oranges, blues and greens and makes you want to study it to find out what all the little details mean. The painting depicts a re-enactment of the Passion of Christ, which is done by Mexicans during Lent (the liturgical season leading up to Easter in the Catholic and Protestant calendars). The Passion of Jesus refers to the suffering enduring by Jesus starting at his entrance to Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the trial in front of Pilate and finishing with his crucifixion The difference here between traditional representations is the mixing of Catholic and pre-Hispanic elements, i.e.the inclusion of the Olmec/Toltec/Aztec god of fertility, seeds, metalsmith/goldworkers, maize and spring. Xipe Totec was typically depicted wearing the flayed skin of his enemy’s and you can see that on the face of Christ on the cross and possibly the rest of the skin showing on his body. The flayed skin was supposed to renew or grow crops, which goes in well with the idea that Christ on the cross is there to give us salvation/renewal. The title refers to both the flayed body of Jesus and the flayed skin of Xipe Totec’s mask is scene on the far right panel underneath the banner of Jesus/John the Baptist. 

Xipe Totec

Xipe Totec – The Flayed God

The altar in the back of the painting is taken directly from the artist’s studio, as seen in the first picture above. Complementary colors play an important part in moving your eyes around the picture. The greens complement the red (ex.the dark green of the cross vs the bright red of the drapes), as well as the blues and oranges (ex. the turquoise of the ladder with the orange of the woman’s shawl in the center of the painting). The red symbolizes the blood of martyrs, in this case the ultimate martyr – Jesus. It is also specifically used on Palm Sunday in anticipation of the death of Jesus. As the author of the post on Yo So Art has commented on her blog post, in the center of the painting is one of the most interesting juxtaposition of images. The priest standing on the ladder has purple vestments which “depict missionaries preaching to the Native [Mexicans]  from a book in front of a giant cross, on top of a scene of some conquistadors on horseback stabbing [these same Aztecs].” 

Paul Pletka - Our Lord, The One Who is Flayed - 2004

Nuestro Senor el Desollado (Our Lord, The One Who is Flayed), 2004

Resources: 

Bratcher, Deborah. CRI, 2013: http://www.crivoice.org/symbols/colorsmeaning.html   

askArt, 2000-2017. http://www.askart.com/artist_bio/Paul_Pletka/82216/Paul_Pletka.aspx

The Eddie Basha Collection, Paul Pletka, taken from Art Fortune, 2016: http://eddiebashacollection.com/collection/paul-pletka 

Yo Soy Art, Dec 2012.Paul Pletka, Our Lord, The One Who is Flayed, 2004: http://yosoyart.blogspot.com/2012/12/blog-post.html