Swap Meet – The Brooklyn Railroad
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
From February 26 to October 9, 2022
Brad Kahlhamer: swap meeting is a succinct but expansive exhibition of drawings, paintings, sculptures and a mobile home caravan woven into a unique personal cosmology. Walking into the large open space of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art reminds me of Kahlhamer’s account of his first visit to the Heard Museum in Phoenix in the late 1970s. He responded forcefully to the presence of the Heard collection of katsina Hopi dolls , which number in the hundreds. It was their tremendous energy as an aggregate, more than the individual personifications of supernatural beings, that made such an impression on the young artist – and this energy finds its legacy in the collective strength of his exhibition.
Born in 1956 to Native American parents in Tucson and adopted by a German-American couple, Kahlhamer never learned his tribal identity and birthplace. At age thirteen, he and his family moved from the southwest to Wisconsin where he grew up and went to college. He spent five years on the road performing music before moving to New York in 1982. There he landed a design director job with Topps Chewing Gum and met Art Spiegelman and the world of comics. underground. He became a full-time artist in 1993 and began to develop a dynamic and eclectic visual language and vision that, along with his music, confronted the complex matrix of his Native American heritage, his formative Midwestern upbringing, and his downtown Manhattan adoption community.
As a contemporary Native American artist exhibiting in high profile galleries in New York, Kahlhamer was an anomaly in the 1990s and early 2000s. While his drawings, paintings and sculptures were celebrated, no broader conversation about Native American culture and history only developed around his art. Additionally, due to its unaffiliated tribal status, it was also (until recently) not included in the discourse of Native American art. In 2004 and 2005, however, Kahlhamer had a show at SMoCA called Let’s walk westfor which the Heard Museum loaned twelve drawings from the 19th Century Plains Indian Register to be shown alongside his work, which marked an incipient shift in the way curators and museums were beginning to understand and recontextualize art Aboriginal in general and Kahlhamer’s own practice.
Early on, Kahlhamer envisioned his art as being situated in what he describes as “a third place.” The first place is the life he would have lived had he been raised on a reservation, the second is the life he actually lived, and the third place is set in an imaginary space expressed through his art and lyrics. . Kahlhamer designed and created Exchange meeting in a part-time home and studio in Mesa, Arizona, which he purchased from his father in 2018 – its location allowed him to further his ongoing investigation of the native culture and landscape of his birth. In the wake of the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Black Lives Matter movement, the COVID pandemic, and the immigration border crisis, it’s no surprise that Exchange meeting occupies a more socially engaged “third place” than Kahlhamer’s earlier work.
The desert swap encounter is an unorthodox concept for an exhibit, but Kahlhamer was drawn to its randomness and spirit of reciprocity. It’s a unique social and cultural paradigm that he and the exhibit’s curator, Dr. Natasha Boas, have adapted to the museum. They repurposed a broken down mobile trailer as the focal point of the exhibit—Kahlhamer and Boas actually haggled it over at the Apache Trail Swap Meet. Historically held at the border between multiple territories for commerce and the exchange of goods, the contemporary exchange encounter is “at the intersection of neighborhoods, city sprawl and open spaces” and continues to bring together people from different places, backgrounds and economies. In the context of the exhibition, the trailer is both an object, an atmospheric relic, a signifier of the nomadic way of life and an art exhibition space.
The trailer content could work as an exhibit in itself with Kahlhamer’s drawing-based practice on full screen. His designs are pinned directly to walls and fill virtually every surface alongside taxidermy, photographs, feathers, tabletop sculptures, animal skulls, printed T-shirts and random pieces of lamps and rickety furniture. The reality of the interior and the various distressed objects that occupy it carry a tender, desperate quality that, along with Kahlhamer’s fiery drawing, pervades the entire exhibition. For example, the huge, suspended super catcher (2014), Kahlhamer’s version of the traditional Native American dreamcatcher woven with wire and powwow bells, is a fantastical, space-transparent design of wire that reflects light and encompasses various elements of the exhibition in its delicate and graphic expanse.
At the entrance to the exhibition is a showcase of Nomadic Studio Sketchbooks (2020-22), a sample of Kahlhamer’s Hundred has filled in like a daily diary since the early eighties. Exploding with lines and charged colors, they channel drawings from the Plains Indian ledger made between 1865 and 1910, documents of personal and tribal myths and victories during the most brutal period of US government violence against the Native Americans. Deeply inspired by these expressions of entire cosmologies rendered simply with lines on small sheets of paper, Kahlhamer’s sketchbook drawings of hawks, eagles, bird-human hybrids, desert landscapes, and himself are his own poignant account of travels, thoughts and impressions of the past few years in the South West.
“Rock Shop (Geological Studies)” and “Zombie Botanicals” (both 2020-22) are two new bodies of work that Kahlhamer has made and assembled from materials collected while hiking in the desert. In his Geological studiessmall rocks that fit in the palm of a hand are painted with brightly colored faces and designs that come alive on the floor like animated beings, while the zombie plants are fashioned from dried cacti and decomposed into otherworldly figures that seem to preside over and bear witness to the artist’s “third space”. Rocks and zombie plants join Kahlhamer’s earlier “Next Level Figures” (2013-2014), small figurative sculptures made of wire, fabric and other detritus that Kahlhamer accumulated over almost thirty years, until ‘until they are a hundred in number, before showing them as Bowery Nation (2012-13). The more recent DIY is in Bowery Nation Falcon + Eagle (2018) join Kahlhamer’s growing family, each standing on an individual shelf in an imposing construction that is part of a larger sculptural tableau.
Born in one culture, raised in another, Kahlhamer uses drawing, painting, sculpture and music to find a sense of self. Immerse in the world and landscape of its unknown origin story, Exchange meeting takes her aesthetic journey to a place where multiple bodies of work overlap with disparate objects, ideas and stories. Kahlhamer locates, in the space of this intersection, a sense of community that harbors potential for artworks, artists and visitors. The fortuitous coincidence (due to COVID), of Exchange meeting and Brad Kahlhamer: 11:59 a.m. in Tucsona study of Kahlhamer’s work at the Tucson Museum of Fine Art, offers an opportunity to see the full and dynamic trajectory of his career, and to consider recent works and the “third space” of Exchange meeting as a new site of living cooperation between the many worlds and identities of Kahlhamer.