Brad Kahlhamer of Mesa is among the 24 artists participating in “Larger Than Memory: Contemporary Art from Indigenous North America,” at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
Co-curated by Diana Pardue and Erin Joyce, this is the largest contemporary art exhibition ever at the museum, founded by Dwight and Maie Heard in 1929 to advance American Indian art and celebrate Indigenous peoples.
Including artists from the United States and Canada, “Larger Than Memory” features 40 works in a variety of mediums created during the last 20 years.
Native cultures represented include Salish, Kootenai, Lakota, Chemehuevi, Cherokee, Zagime Anishinabek, Choctaw and Seminole.
“As we began to receive the artwork for this exhibition, I was reminded once again that photographs of works of art serve an essential purpose, but nothing can truly replace the experience of actually seeing them,” said Pardue, the chief curator.
“As we began to install the exhibit, I was amazed at the skill, the size of some of the works, and the concepts and critical thinking that went into the planning and creation of each.”
Kahlhamer, who has lived in Mesa for two years, recalled, “I have always been attracted and inspired by makers and doers.
“My father was a master carpenter in Tucson and I grew up in a maker’s environment. It was the same with the music I heard in Tucson: mariachi, country and rock on the radio. These were the foundational experiences of which my art practice grew out of.”
Three of Kahlhamer’s works are on exhibit: “Untitled,” 2019, gouache, ink on paper; “The Standard,” 2019, watercolor, coffee, ink on paper; and “36 Hours in Gallup,” 2019, watercolor, ink on paper.
The exhibition encourages new ways of understanding Indigenous art, explained Heard Museum Dickey Family Director and CEO David Roche.
“‘Larger Than Memory’ comes at a pivotal time in the global contemporary art world,” he said. “The exhibition presents artists . . . engaging with critical dialogues that touch all of our lives.”
Many of the works consider the colonial power structures and bureaucratic strictures that have had lasting impacts on Indigenous communities, Joyce explained.
“These include structural racism, sexism and the environmental crisis that has evolved at the hands of late-stage capitalism. These systems not only affect communities but also the environment.”
Kahlhamer was adopted in Tucson from a Native American family.
His adoptive family moved from Arizona to Wisconsin in 1969; there he received a B.F.A from The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh in 1980. In 1985, he moved to New York City, and now he shares time between there and Tucson.
“I started coming back down to Arizona for trips after high school,” he recalled. “The frequency of returns increased to Mesa and the Superstitions in ’99 when my parents moved to the trailer park where I am living and working in the same doublewide.”
In Tucson, he was first influenced by the popular Ted Degrazia and, in New York, Art Spiegelman, the author of “Maus,” who was a colleague at Topps Chewing Gum, known for its trading cards and other collectibles.
He worked on borders and packaging. “I can sometimes pick my work out when I see the cards at different swap meets.”
Later, in New York City, he encountered numerous influences from museums and the streets: music, painting and culture. Neo-Expressionism, a movement popular in New York City during the 1980s, was one of these.
His artwork, “Untitled,” is representative of this fusion style.
“It’s an impure hybrid of Kokopelli imagery mixed with expressive paint handling,” he said.
“My adult life in New York City was an explosion of new experiences. My creative life and influences grew exponentially. I was fully immersed into downtown creative culture,” he said, noting that he hopes the show will travel to the East Coast, specifically New York City.
His work also expresses the challenges of a diverse background. He often explores his “third place,” or the “meeting point of opposing personal histories.”
“I was adopted in Tucson and was raised in a blue-collar family. I remember a worker asking whose kid I was at one of my dad’s job sites,” he explained. “And, I had many awkward encounters in the small Midwestern town I moved to in my teens.”
Kahlhamer said “Larger Than Memory” connects his art with early influences. “This is a particularly meaningful inclusion for me, as much of my work is inspired by the Heard Museum’s tremendous foundational collection,” he said.
“As I said at the members’ opening, ‘The works collectively bridge and transport ancient energies into new realms.’”
For more information and to purchase tickets for “Larger Than Memory,” see heard.org/larger-than-memory/. During regular museum hours, call 602-252-8840. Children 5 and under are free as are American Indians, with tribal I.D.
For information on Brad Kahlhamer: see bradkahlhamer.net.