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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

Abstract horses, bird myth murals and a reclaimed swap meet trailer are featured in new exhibits across the Southwest by three very different Indigenous artists.

Hailing from different homelands, artists Sheldon Harvey, Nani Chacon and Brad Kahlhamer are at the top of their mesa game with powerhouse shows in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona that explore and explode contemporary Indigenous art.

Taking cues from tradition, their new art has visual narratives with history, humor and cosmic levels of spirituality.

Diné culture infuses Sheldon Harvey’s art

Inspired by the Diné stories he grew up with and the experimental works of European abstract expressionist painters, artist Sheldon Harvey, Diné (Red Running Into Water Clan), has created a unique fusion of styles.

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A new series of large-scale paintings and sculptural works take cues from the New Mexico and Arizona land, from Diné stories and traditions, and from the artist’s translation of his identity.

Working out of a cluttered studio, his art has found its way into major collections throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. He has received numerous awards and honors, including first place for sculpture and painting at the Santa Fe Indian Market and Best in Show for his oil painting.

Artist Sheldon Harvey, Diné, draws from stories and traditions in his work, which is being featured in an exhibition that runs through May 6, 2022, at Modern West Gallery in Salt Lake City, Utah. He's one of three Indigenous artists drawing attention with high-profile exhibits. ( Photos courtesy of Scout Invie/Modern West Gallery)

An exhibit of his work opened March 18 and runs to May 6 at Modern West Gallery in Salt Lake City, Utah, showing with artist Shalee Cooper in the duo exhibition, “Convergence.”

Together, their works “converge” to meditate on art as a medium of balance, relation, identity, and transformation. Harvey presents paintings that contain symbols and totems that suggest spirits and kachinas. Panel works become a cross between painting and sculpture.

“The new series is coming from my homeland, a place that I live currently, in Fort Defiance, Arizona,” Harvey told Indian Country Today by phone. “A lot of ideas coming in from my past experience of growing up in these areas, specifically memories of ceremony, sacred sites, sacred places, and the Navajo traditional culture as well.”

Harvey grew up on tribal lands a couple of hours from any town, but the isolation was fine with him. It was country lifestyle filled with ceremonies and stories he heard.

“A lot of that has always been a part of my work since I started creating sculptures,” he said. “And with this series, I took a little step further as far as wanting to learn more about the human spirit. There’s this sense of self-discovery and just work that I went through in the past.”

His latest series contains strong currents of classic abstraction from the 1930s through the 1960s that European and Latin American artists used in their work. Harvey says artists like Armenian Arshile Gorky were a strong influence, but that he brings an Indigenous element to it.

“There's the painterly technique I've been looking at —a lot of works from those guys that really struck me as interesting to have the bravery to create the imagery they did,” he said. “That struck me, because being creative in that way takes a lot of courage and is a strong, fearful place to put yourself.”

Diné artist Sheldon Harvey's small, cluttered studio shows a number of works in progress, including 3-D pieces. His art is being featured in an exhibition that runs through May 6, 2022, at Modern West Gallery in Salt Lake City, Utah. He's one of three Indigenous artists drawing attention with high-profile exhibits. ( Photos courtesy of Scout Invie/Modern West Gallery)

Harvey believes his style alludes to “the Navajo and our words, very scripted and a bit abstract at the same time.”

For the sculptural panels, he used cardboard and wood to pull out the shapes from the paintings.

“I started seeing the tensions in the two-dimensional paintings come together. The more I could see that I could actually create them in three-dimensions. Pull the shape out of the different angles, see it from the side, bottom, the top,” he says.

The show features about 14 pieces of his art, four sculptures of free-standing painted figures and several paintings and 3-D panels.

Joining him in the show is Salt Lake City artist Shalee Cooper, non-Native, who is also the director of Modern West. Her work is cleanly geometric abstraction, with minimal colors of black, white, brown and gray.

“I wanted to show with her and see what the complex relationship to the imagery my art can bring to hers or can teach something that we're excited about that we saw, get a dialogue going with the works,” Harvey said. “We want to try to dig a little deeper into the human consciousness spirit, aside from the race subject, in our Native, non-Native worlds. See what the spirit is between the both of us and with the show like this as well, we being male and female, there's a masculine side of the work and there's a feminine side of the work as well..

“That's where the title, “Convergence,” comes from.”

He continued, “I’m just trying to understand myself as an artist and as a creator thus far. So when I started creating these paintings, it got Shalee’s attention and she asked to show together. I had seen some of her work … and I realized that they're very similar in design and in capturing this innate spirit of design and symmetry and balance.”

Nani Chacon draws on mythology

Diné artist Nani Chacon, born in Gallup, New Mexico, is having her first solo show, “Spectrum,” at the nonprofit art space, SITE Santa Fe.

The exhibit, which continues through Aug. 21, features a new body of work with large-scale paintings that examine cultural repair and radical colonial resistance through masterful visual storytelling and re-telling.

"I have always been interested in finding my place and how I identify with creating artwork as an Indigenous person,” Chacon said in a press statement. “I incorporate abstract elements of Diné imagery in my mural and illustrative practices as a way for me to create stories and bring the viewer into the artwork."

Artist Nani Chacon, Diné, works recently at a mural in progress at SITE Santa Fe, a nonprofit art space where her works will be on exhibit through Aug. 21, 2022.  Her large-scale paintings often feature women and birds. She's one of three Indigenous artists drawing attention with high-profile exhibits. ( Photos courtesy of Caroline Franco/SITE Santa Fe)

Chacon is known for large-scale, site-specific public artworks – many in Indian Country. Primarily working as a painter and muralist, she has shown both nationally and internationally, creating projects that focus on community engagement, led by her personal philosophy that art should be an accessible and a meaningful catalyst for social change.

The latest exhibition features eight newly commissioned large-scale paintings that feature women and birds — subjects she is repeatedly drawn to. There is a site-specific “woven mural,” and to complete the show, a survey of public artworks and personal archival materials.

This work, "Four Genders were Born," by artist Nani Chacon, Diné, is among the pieces on exhibit through Aug. 21, 2022, at SITE Santa Fe, a nonprofit art space. She's one of three Indigenous artists drawing attention with high-profile exhibits. ( Photos courtesy of Caroline Franco/SITE Santa Fe)

The newly commissioned triptych of billboards is shaped by symbolism and place. Each billboard design is a reproduction of an original outdoor “mini-mural,” that traces Chacon’s life path and lineage.

The original mini-murals are located in Mora, Albuquerque, and Chinle — all significant locations for Chacon. Documented, printed, and installed on the west side of SITE Santa Fe’s building, the billboards are on view throughout the duration of the exhibition.

“Nani’s new paintings breathe life into the world,” curator Brandee Caoba said in a statement. “She masterfully uses visual language of color, design, and composition to reclaim and retell stories and build new connections.”

Brad Kahlhamer searches his indigenous roots

Growing up in the extremes of desert and downtown, with a tribal ambiguity that can never be reconciled, multimedia artist Brad Kahlhamer is an insider and an outsider.

He grew up in Tucson, Arizona, as an adopted Indigenous child and made his way into New York City’s art world, first as an illustrator then a fine artist, exhibiting at top galleries and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He now divides his time between New York City and Mesa, Arizona.

Fusing his deep and complex visual history of Native Americans with the New York City raw punk aesthetic, his four decades of artwork are on display in two museum shows that will run concurrently in Arizona, with a third opening May 13 in New York, a solo gallery show at Garth Greenan Gallery.

Artist Brad Kalhamer's exhibition, "Swap Meet," runs at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona through Oct. 9, 2022. He is one of three Indigenous artists drawing attention with high-profile exhibits.  (Photo courtesy of Brad Kahlhamer)

The first installation, “Swap Meet,” opened in February at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, with the premise of a dusty weekend swap meet and the items that can be found there.

Swap meets often have people selling out of the backs of vans or trailers, so Kahlahmer bought a trailer, cleaned it up – including a bit of fumigation – and brought it into the museum. A stage was built onto the front for performances, and the inside is set up like a gallery filled with drawings, sculpture, taxidermy, and even painted chairs for the public to sit on.

Kahlhamer has been going to swap meets since he was young, and for him they are a place of commodity and community, where cultures and social classes meet up to buy, trade, and sell.

“I've had a long history with swap meets and second-hand construction sites, as my father was a carpenter,” Kahlhamer said by phone from Tucson. “It's an economic thing, of the joy of improvisation, because you have to improvise if you don't have a lot of money to make things. I am a maker.”

The display features painted rocks – his Rock Shop – like the trays of gems you see at flea markets, and a new series of Zombie Botanicals – sculptures made from dead cactus parts he scavenged in the Arizona Superstition Mountains.

Indigenous artist Brad Kalhamer's works will be on display in  simultaneous exhibits in Arizona, at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art through Oct. 9, 2022, and the Tucson Museum of Art through Sept. 25, 2022. ( Photo by Xavier Tavera, courtesy of Brad Kahlhamer)

A Super Catcher – a giant dreamcatcher made of wire, bells and jingle cones – hangs from the ceiling. “Swap Meet” runs through Oct. 9.

A concurrent show, “11:59 to Tucson” – the time and place Kahlhamer was born – is at the Tucson Museum of Art. It’s a more formal retrospective with decades worth of early work he made of reconstructed forts.

There are bird Kachina dolls from a work called “Bowery Nation” that are reimagined with objects he found in the streets and in a basement factory on a fishing trip – rubber, nails, rope, feathers. Several large-scale paintings feature tribal faces and figures.

A whole wall features hundreds of skull drawings in “Skull Project,” which in his mind are not scary but rather meant to invoke ancestors and spirits that visit.

“11:59 to Tucson” runs through Sept. 25.

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