Brad Kahlhamer: Swap Meet is a succinct yet expansive exhibition composed of drawings, paintings, sculptures, and a mobile home trailer woven into a uniquely 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 powerfully to the presence of the Heard’s collection of Hopi katsina dolls, which numbers in the hundreds. It was their formidable 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 force of his exhibition.
Born in 1956 to Native American parents in Tucson and adopted by a German-American couple, Kahlhamer has never learned his tribal identity and birthplace. At the age of thirteen, he and his family left the Southwest for Wisconsin where he grew up and went to college. He spent five years on the road playing music before going to New York City in 1982. There he landed a design director gig with Topps Chewing Gum and encountered Art Spiegelman and the world of underground comics. He became a full-time artist in 1993 and began evolving a dynamic, eclectic visual language and a vision that, along with his music, confronted the complex matrix of his Native American heritage, his formative Midwestern upbringing, and his adopted downtown Manhattan community.
As a contemporary Native American artist showing in high-visibility galleries in New York, Kahlhamer was an anomaly in the 1990s and early 2000s. Even though his drawings, paintings, and sculptures were celebrated, no larger conversation about Native American culture and history developed around his art. Moreover, because of his non-affiliated tribal status, he wasn’t (until recently) included in the discourse of Native American art either. In 2004 and 2005, however, Kahlhamer had a show at SMoCA called Let’s Walk West, for which the Heard Museum lent twelve nineteenth-century Plains Indian ledger drawings to show alongside his work, that signaled a nascent shift in how curators and museums were starting to understand and recontextualize Native Art in general and Kahlhamer’s own practice.
Early on, Kahlhamer envisioned his art as being located in what he describes as “a third place.” The first place is the life he would have lived if he was raised on a reservation, the second is the life he actually lived, and the third place is located in an imaginative space expressed through his art and lyrics. Kahlhamer conceived and created Swap Meet in a part-time home and studio in Mesa, Arizona that he purchased from his father in 2018—its location allowed him to deepen his ongoing inquiry into 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 is not surprising that Swap Meet occupies a more socially engaged “third place” than Kahlhamer’s earlier work.
The desert swap meet is an unorthodox concept for an exhibition, but Kahlhamer was drawn to its randomness and spirit of reciprocity. It is a unique social and cultural paradigm that he and the show’s curator, Dr. Natasha Boas, have adapted to the museum. They repurposed a broken-down mobile trailer as the focal point of the exhibition—Kahlhamer and Boas actually haggled for it at the Apache Trail Swap Meet. Historically held at the border between multiple territories for trading and swapping goods, the contemporary swap meet is “at the intersection of neighborhoods, city sprawls, and open-space land” and continues to bring together people from different places, backgrounds, and economies. Within the context of the exhibition, the trailer is simultaneously an object, an atmospheric relic, a signifier of the nomadic lifestyle, and an art-viewing space.
The contents of the trailer could function as an exhibition unto itself with Kahlhamer’s drawing-based practice on full display. His drawings are pinned directly to walls and fill practically every surface alongside taxidermy, photographs, feathers, tabletop sculptures, animal skulls, printed T-shirts, and random pieces of rickety lamps and furniture. The reality of the interior and the various distressed objects that occupy it carries a tender, forlorn quality that, along with Kahlhamer’s spirited drawing, permeates the entire exhibition. For example, the enormous, suspended Super Catcher (2014), Kahlhamer’s version of the traditional Native American dreamcatcher woven with wire and pow-wow bells, is a fantastical, transparent wire drawing in space that reflects light and encompasses various elements of the exhibition in its delicate, graphic expanse.
At the entrance to the exhibition is a vitrine of Nomadic Studio Sketchbooks (2020–22), a sampling of the almost one hundred Kahlhamer has filled like a daily journal since the early eighties. Exploding with charged lines and color, they channel Plains Indian ledger drawings made between 1865 and 1910, documents of both personal and tribal myths and victories during the most brutal period of US government violence against Native Americans. Deeply inspired by these expressions of entire cosmologies rendered simply with lines on small sheets of paper, Kahlhamer’s notebook drawings of hawks, eagles, bird-human hybrids, desert landscapes, and himself are his own poignant record of journeys, thoughts, and impressions over the last few years in the Southwest.
Rock Shop (Geological Studies) and Zombie Botanicals (both 2020–22) are two new bodies of work Kahlhamer made and assembled from material collected on desert hikes. In his Geological Studies, small rocks that fit in the palm of a hand are painted with faces and designs in vivid colors that come alive on the floor as animate beings, while the Zombie Botanicals are fashioned from dried, decayed cactus into otherworldly personages that seem to preside over and bear witness to the artist’s “third space.” The rocks and zombie botanicals join Kahlhamer’s earlier Next Level Figures (2013–14), small figurative sculptures made from wire, fabric, and other detritus that Kahlhamer accumulated for almost thirty years, until they numbered one hundred, before showing them as Bowery Nation (2012–13). Newer bricolage figures in Bowery Nation Hawk + Eagle (2018) join Kahlhamer’s growing family, each standing on an individual shelf in a towering construction as part of a larger sculptural tableau.
Born into one culture, raised in another, Kahlhamer uses drawing, painting, sculpture, and music to locate a sense of self. Delving into the world and landscape of his unknown origin story, Swap Meet takes his aesthetic journey to a place where multiple bodies of work overlap with disparate objects, ideas, and histories. Kahlhamer locates, in the space of this intersection, a sense of community that holds potential for artworks, artist, and visitors alike. The fortuitous coincidence (due to COVID), of Swap Meet and Brad Kahlhamer: 11:59 to Tucson, a survey of Kahlhamer’s work at the Tucson Museum of Fine Art, offers an opportunity to view the full, vibrant trajectory of his career, and to consider the recent works and “third space” of Swap Meet as a new site of lively cooperation amongst Kahlhamer’s many worlds and identities.
— Susan Harris