The Root Cause

Native Cahuilla identity 
meets U.S. culture and politics 
in Gerald Clarke’s artwork.

CAROL CHEH Arts & Entertainment

Artist Gerald Clarke creates art that questions popular or ingrained views and offers alternative perspectives on contemporary issues.

A curious title welcomes visitors to Gerald Clarke’s website: Falling Rock Homepage. An explanatory tab tells a story of the artist as a child, riding home to the Cahuilla Indian reservation with his father:

“[W]e would pass several ‘falling rock’ warning signs. Not knowing what they meant, I asked my dad about them. He told me that Falling Rock was the name of the last ‘free’ Indian that never surrendered to the white man. Wherever you see a falling rock sign marks a place where Falling Rock was seen attacking passing cars. As a kid, I would always look to see if I could see him, angry and free.”

The story, which splices together Native American and Western tropes, is humorous and accessible and sends a strong sociopolitical message. The same can be said about Clarke’s art. Not hewing to any particular artistic lineage or medium, his work takes a variety of forms to address the issues that are important to him, especially the recovery of Native American identity and the examination of its intersection with mainstream U.S. culture and politics. A member of the Cahuilla tribe, Clarke, 50, takes inspiration equally from conceptual art principles and Native American crafts and traditions, and he creates art that questions popular or ingrained views and offers alternative perspectives on contemporary issues.

ABOVE: Gerald Clarke juxtaposes historical and cultural objects, such as baskets, with a contemporary theme: the impact of suburban housing developments on Native communities. Taken from his “One Tract Mind” series, this work shows a series of housetops organized into a formal pattern of jagged lines and shapes akin to the designs on a row 
of Indian baskets.

RIGHT: Using crushed aluminum cans and polyester resin, Clarke re-creates traditional basketry designs to make a poignant statement with familiar Cahuilla iconograpy.

Take the sculptural object Manifest Destiny. Atop a classical European pedestal labeled with the words “Manifest Destiny” sits a gumball machine filled with prize capsules. The instructions promise each capsule contains a dollar bill, so inserting a quarter into the machine would result in a 300 percent profit. But people who accept the offer find no money in the capsule; they find a slip of paper citing the definition of manifest destiny: “a 19th-century doctrine that justified the taking of Indian land by white settlers.” Clarke explains, “I take a familiar object and use it to bridge the gap between my idea and the lived experience of the viewer. I hope to engage them, maybe spark a family conversation; that, to me, is a successful piece.”

Clarke also takes shots at the Western tendency to commodify and fetishize Native culture. In his series of basket explorations, he borrows traditional patterns from Cahuilla weavers to create icons that instantly evoke a folk mysticism. Again, viewers who look closely discover something different: The baskets are made of crushed aluminum cans or polyester resin, so they can’t be purchased or even used. The placement of these objects on former Cahuilla land is a reminder of a hidden colonial history.

Gerald Clarke creates much of his art outside of a traditional studio, often in the backyard of his home on the Cahuilla reservation south of Palm Springs, where he’s also a handy rancher.

Clarke grew up for the most part on the Cahuilla reservation south of Palm Springs where he now lives with his wife and children. As a child, he attended public schools, and his coursework included the history of California missions. Mentions of Native Americans were brief and inaccurate. His people were often portrayed as docile savages who complied with Western conquest. Clarke remembers this as the first time he noticed the disconnection between official accounts and the reality he knew.

Later, he followed a girlfriend to college and fell in love with the process of learning. He was interested in everything, but chose to study visual art because it encompassed other subjects — history, psychology, and political science. As a graduate of welding school, he was also good with his hands. Clarke earned two master’s degrees, in painting and sculpture, from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and became an educator. He recently accepted a position in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, Riverside.

Throughout his life, Clarke has remained close to his Cahuilla community, serving for six years on the Tribal Council. He’s a working artist and also a proud rancher. “The academy is an ivory tower, and art is too conceptual,” he says. “It helps to live a physical life. Selling cattle and talking about the quality of hay — that’s real stuff, and it keeps you grounded.”

Rather than working in a traditional studio, Clarke has made much of his art while sitting in his backyard, where neighbors and friends enjoy peeking at his latest projects. He likes keeping his art transparent and demystified. “An artist like Matthew Barney, you need years of art history and theory to understand what he’s doing, and that makes his work very exclusive,” Clarke says. “I prefer to make art for the other 98 percent. But that doesn’t mean that I dumb it down.”

Ultimately, Clarke explains, Native Americans have an entirely different worldview from that of European-Americans. It values community and emphasizes universal truths, rather than individual genius or a linear, specialized path toward success. “This is a bigger idea of what art is,” Clarke says. “And it just might be what the world needs right now.”