The multimedia artist Brad Kahlhamer’s practice reflects on his personal experiences, dating back to infancy. An indigenous child, he was adopted at 3 days old in 1956 by a German family and grew up in Tucson, Arizona. His birth records were permanently sealed; to this day, he doesn’t know who his parents were.
Within and beyond his acclaimed work, Kahlhamer is often searching for self—he calls it “yondering.” As a Native American genetically, yet someone who will never know his true heritage and cannot be tribally enrolled, he considers himself an insider and an outsider.
Kahlhamer’s art fuses the deep and complex visual history of Native Americans with the raw punk aesthetic he encountered upon moving to New York in his 20s. In the midst of a career high, Kahlhamer is currently exhibiting four decades of his work in two museum exhibitions running concurrently in Arizona—a retrospective at the Tucson Museum of Art and a thematic installation at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art—plus a solo show of new, large-scale paintings slated to open May 13th at Garth Greenan Gallery in New York.
Kahlhamer was first drawn to New York when he heard about the punk scene. He became a touring musician, playing at the infamous CBGBs in the early 1980s, and then worked as an illustrator for Topps, the chewing gum and collectibles company, for a decade. He lived downtown and became a part of the Bowery punk explosion.
He started exhibiting his work in 1992 at Thread Waxing Space. At the time, he was making sculptures from scavenged rubber and metal that alluded to what he calls the “third place” of his heritage: the first place is his actual upbringing; the second is his native roots; and the third is the “meeting point of opposing personal histories,” the artist explained.
After several successful shows, Kahlhamer quit his day job at Topps in 1993. That same year, he exhibited at White Columns in New York, and soon, other group shows that traveled to small museums and exhibition spaces across the United States.
In 1999, Kalhamer’s work caught the attention of Jeffrey Deitch, which led to a show at Deitch Projects that same year. Titled Friendly Frontier, it featured large-scale paintings, drawings, and walls of what the artist calls “next level figures”—Kachina-like dolls he made from found wood, rope, and rubber culled from the downtown streets.
In the decades since then, Kahlhamer has had dozens of shows worldwide at esteemed institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, and the Minnesota Museum of American Art; and galleries, such as Jack Shainman Gallery, Andréhn-Schiptjenko, The Bronwyn Keenan Gallery, and Exit Art.
Now based between New York and Mesa, Arizona, Kahlhamer is exhibiting work that reflects on his experiences in the latter city. His show at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), Swap Meet, transforms the museum setting into a dusty weekend Swap Meet. Kahlhamer has been going to Swaps since he was young and considers them places of commerce and community, where people from different cultures and social classes meet to buy, trade, and sell everything from junk to gems to trailers.
“I’ve had a long history with Swap Meets and secondhand construction sites as my father was a carpenter,” Kahlhamer said by phone from Tucson. “I noticed as I got into the art world that the art fairs and Swap Meets are essentially set up in the same schematic structure. There’s a kind of booth, there’s a dealer, there are things for sale.
“Over time, I was thinking about the Swap Meet, about being an adopted person, and the idea of personhood and how this is expressed through the animate or inanimate objects of a swap,” Kahlhamer continued. “You go anticipating to see the cars, people, the self-appointed dealers, the characters that you come across. And then suddenly, you’re halfway through it and it is late in the day and they start to disappear. You look at the items and they’re just old things, used and broken. And you wonder about those people—who they are, where they came from and where did they go. And as my own origins are a mystery, I relate to this as a place and an idea.” Working with guest curator Natasha Boas, he developed a large-scale presentation to channel these sensations of the Swap Meet into an exhibition.
“As a curator, I am known to do ambitious installations and bring crazy unexpected things into the gallery,” Boas wrote via email. She recalled that the artist took her to the local Swap Meet in Mesa, Arizona, over three years ago. “Together, we came up with the crazy idea to get a trailer.” They bought it at the Swap Meet; “we left the cash in an envelope and got a written note from the owner as a receipt—a very Swap Meet transaction!” Boas recalled.
Originally, they had planned for the trailer to become Kahlhamer’s studio within the Mesa Swap Meet. “We would have a 24/7 video to record all the interactions with him and the Swap Meet community and transients,” Boas continued, “a social practice project where Brad worked on his nomadic notebooks and interacted with folks.”
Ultimately, they took another route, and the trailer has become the centerpiece of the SMoCA exhibition. The vehicle had to be fumigated and outfitted to meet safety measures; it now includes a stage and a new entrance and exit. “I think people were living there, crawling in at night,” Kahlhamer said of the trailer’s former life. “There was some pretty nasty stuff; it needed an insane fumigating bomb thing, and it had a lot of water damage, but once it dried out, it actually was really great.” Inside, the trailer is filled with Kahlhamer’s drawings, watercolors, Kachina figures, taxidermy, and some bleached-out plastic shell chairs that he stenciled with images of Indian chiefs.
While the trailer is the main attraction at the SMoCA exhibition, there is also a knockout, large-scale Super Catcher—a giant, mother of all Dream Catchers hanging from the ceiling, made from wire, bells, and jingle cones.
The show also features a new Rock Shop—an array of painted rocks that reference “the geological studies of gems and mineral rocks you always see in trays at Swap Meets,” Kahlhamer said—as well as Zombie Botanical sculptures. The latter works are made up of pieces of dead cactus that the artist has “either scavenged from the Swap Meet or picked up on various hikes around the Superstition Mountains in the desert,” Kahlhamer said. Previously, he mounted these works at his home. “I had this idea that my neighbors were stealing my water and I needed protection,” he explained. “I had three of them in my driveway, and then the water theft stopped.”
Nearby, in a glass case, there are several of his Nomadic Studio notebooks. Part of a lifelong project, these books are filled with quick watercolor sketches of people, landscapes, and animals that the artist makes wherever he goes. To date, there are over 100 volumes.
At the exhibition’s opening, a Navajo country band performed on the trailer stage, and future performances will involve spoken word and Kahlhamer playing music as well.
Two hours south, at the Tucson Museum of Art, Kahlhamer’s retrospective 11:59 to Tucson opened on March 17th. This show takes him back to his beginnings: He was born in Tucson at 11:59 p.m. The title also references the movie 3:10 to Yuma, which follows an impoverished rancher and a notorious outlaw who are brought together for a twisted sense of justice and reckoning. Kahlhamer relates that plot to the art world, in the way that poor artists are sometimes at the mercy of unscrupulous dealers.
This more formal retrospective, curated by Julie Sasse, features work from the 1980s to 2021. Commanding much of the museum’s ground level, the sprawling exhibition has several large-scale paintings, installations, sculpture, videos of Kahlhamer’s musical projects, and a glass case of his Nomadic Sketchbooks.
There are bird Kachina dolls from that large ongoing series Bowery Nation (1985–2012) that he first exhibited at Deitch Projects, both on stands and made into chandeliers complete with straw nests in the center. These humorous birds brim with personality.
Fort Gotham Girls and Boys Club (2014) is a standout work that centers on a tribal face, with ledger-like swirls of carved totemic bird figures, encircled by small teepees. The Topps logo can be seen in one corner—a reference to the place where the artist honed his drawing skills.
An entire wall of the Tucson show is covered with hundreds of skull drawings. This work, Skull Project (2004), was inspired by a trip to the catacombs in Rome, Italy, where human skulls are stacked up underground. The individual drawings are tacked to the wall with silver push pins.
“In my mind, the skulls are not scary, but meant to invoke ancestors and spirits that visit,” Kahlhamer said.
The Tucson show is accompanied by a catalog with extensive essays on his life and creative process. The cover photo pictures a five-year-old Kahlhamer standing in his parents dusty desert yard wearing a little cowboy hat and boots. He holds a large desert tortoise, grinning like he found the secret to the universe.
Whether reflecting his fascination with desert animals or the hardcore visuals of the NYC punk scene alike, these shows exemplify how the artist’s work has evolved over time. The work shifts and grows as Kahlhmer continues his search for identity as an indigenous artist who has no tribe.
—Sandra Hale Schulman