While born to Native parents, Kahlhamer was raised by a German-American family, and spent most of his childhood in Arizona and Wisconsin. As a young adult, the artist lived on the road as a traveling musician before finally settling in New York City.
His paintings are expressive matrices of images, text, and gestural paint—reflecting a rich, peripatetic personal history. Southwestern deserts, Midwestern waterways, and Northeastern cities comingle within the loosely biographical works. In paintings like 4 Topps NDN (2013) and Americannons and LUVRS (2009), Kahlhamer replicates the logo for Topps Chewing Gum, the company that hired him shortly after he moved to New York. There, his colleague Art Spiegelman introduced him to the city’s thriving underground comics scene. The influence is evident in Kahlhamer’s jagged lines, informality, and improvisational tendencies.
Kahlhamer’s works mix visual registers: stenciled spray paint and acrylic; dreamcatchers, teepees, headdresses, eagles, and buffalo. Each work is a product of cultural hybridity, mixing Abstract Expressionism, graffiti, and popular culture with Native American imagery that transcends tribal specificity. (Kahlhamer has described himself as “tribally ambiguous,” his official connection sealed in records that predate his adoption.) The works, and his life, explore this disjunction and union, as well as the energetic tension between authenticity and ambiguity.
Kahlhamer has been the subject of over 31 solo exhibitions at prestigious venues such as: Deitch Projects (1999, 2001, and 2006, New York); Denver Museum of Contemporary Art (2008); Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum (2012–2013, Ridgefield, Connecticut); Jack Shainman Gallery (2013, 2014, and 2017, New York); Minnesota Museum of American Art (2019, St. Paul); and Plains Art Museum (2020, Fargo, North Dakota). The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and Tucson Museum of Art will both be mounting solo exhibitions of his work in 2022. His work features in numerous public collections internationally, including: The Museum of Modern Art (New York); Tucson Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Walker Art Center (Minneapolis); and Whitney Museum of American Art (New York).