Art

Artist Brad Kahlhamer Blends New York and the Southwest in His New Scottsdale Exhibit

Artist Brad Kahlhamer Blends New York and the Southwest in His New Scottsdale Exhibit
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art


As a child, artist Brad Kahlhamer would roam freely his desert home of Marana in southern Arizona. As a young man, he moved to New York City and became part of the vibrant underground art scene of the 1980s and 1990s.

Both influences are present in "Swap Meet," Kahlhamer's solo exhibition now on display at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

The centerpiece of the show is a mobile home trailer that Kahlhamer, who moved back to Arizona in 2018, indeed acquired at a Mesa swap meet. Inside, the walls are lined with his drawings, making the trailer a piece of art that also contains art.

"The trailer is a space to be activated," says Jennifer McCabe, director and chief curator at SMoCA. "At a swap meet, you exchange goods. You buy things, but they’re used things. Here, the 'swap meet' is that you could be exchanging ideas or experiences."

click to enlarge Artist Brad Kahlhamer stands with the centerpiece of his "Swap Meet" exhibition. - JENNIFER GOLDBERG
Artist Brad Kahlhamer stands with the centerpiece of his "Swap Meet" exhibition.
Jennifer Goldberg

Kahlhamer, who is of Native descent, began experiencing life as an artist early on. Born in 1956, he was adopted by a white family through a program of the Lutheran church, and knows little about his biological parents.

"Arizona adoption laws in those days were quite strict. There was no going back, no empathy. ... I think my mother might have come from Phoenix, actually, and gave birth to me at Tucson Medical Center. I wrote a song about it, actually," he says.

His adoptive father was in construction, and "my early life was lumberyards, secondhand construction materials, brickyards, cement mixers — very much a worker mentality, a maker mentality. Tools. Hands. Doing stuff. I never left it. Except that I had an obsession to draw. I started to draw about 3, 4, 5 years old," he says.

He flourished in the southern Arizona desert, he says.

"I ran around in Marana a lot, just a wild child. My parents were astute enough to say, 'Wow, this kid is just going to do his own thing. We’re just going to let him ride. We’ll feed him, he’ll come home when he’s hungry, and that’s it.' And that was my life."

It was his life for a while, but at the age of 25, after some time living in Wisconsin and on the road as a musician, Kahlhamer moved to New York City. He took a job at Topps, the iconic trading card and bubblegum company, where he met renowned artist Art Spiegelman. (Most famous for his graphic novel series Maus, Spiegelman created comics for Topps for many years.)

"He was probably one of my first mentors," Kahlhamer says of Spiegelman. "He took me out of one sort of low-paying section of the company and immediately shoehorned me in with his group, which was the creative development group, and those were the top underground cartoonists of the day. I quickly became the art director, the new product director."

In New York City, Kahlhamer found artistic inspiration (the influence of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat are strongly present in his work) and a community of creators.

"Part of what I love about New York is the density of culture and artists," he says. "Even in my own studio building I think there’s 20 active studios on one floor, so you go out and there’s your friends, and you’re all showing at galleries and comparing notes and supporting each other’s lifestyle. We lived that life, that studio life."

click to enlarge A selection of Kahlhamer's sketchbooks. - JENNIFER GOLDBERG
A selection of Kahlhamer's sketchbooks.
Jennifer Goldberg

He lived in New York for decades (and is still represented by Garth Greenan Gallery there), but Kahlhamer never forgot his desert roots.

After 9/11, he came back to southern Arizona to stay for a bit in what he calls a "productive and successful ... self-realized residency." Then, in 2018, he moved back, this time to Mesa.

"It’s a mystical land," Kahlhamer says of Arizona. "There’s a very active Native culture, a very vibrant culture. You don’t have that on the East Coast."
click to enlarge Some of Kahlhamer's "zombie botanicals" and painted rocks. - SCOTTSDALE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Some of Kahlhamer's "zombie botanicals" and painted rocks.
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
Some of the works in "Swap Meet" are a representation of his current existence. The "zombie botanicals," as he calls them, are grotesque figures crafted from bits of dead desert flora Kahlhamer collects during his hikes. He imagines them as guardians that protect him and his home from harm.

Other elements of "Swap Meet" have more of a New York influence. The Bowery Nation is a series of kachina dolls that are painted not in traditional Indigenous colors, but instead in the bold, expressionistic style of the late 20th Century New York underground art scene.

Indeed, "Swap Meet" has a little of everything: Kahlhamer's sketchbooks inspired by his travels; painted rocks that are reminiscent of petroglyph art; a giant wire dreamcatcher crafted from smaller dreamcatchers; and more.

For Kahlhamer, who doesn't know his tribal affiliation and considers himself "tribally ambiguous," using Indigenous art forms is a way to connect to his Native heritage, McCabe says.

"He's talked about this idea of being 'other.' He's said, 'I just wake up and I’m an artist and I do my thing, but people look at me and they say I look Native, you’re Native.' So I think it’s him trying to connect to something that’s impossible to connect to. So he does it through these ubiquitous Native things like the dreamcatcher [and the [kachina] dolls," she says.

"Swap Meet," which continues at SMoCA through October 9, will undoubtedly be seen by thousands of museum visitors. But Kahlhamer says that he doesn't want viewers to necessarily experience the show a certain way.

"I’ve done over 30 solo shows, and over that considerable stretch, everybody is bringing their own sensibilities and their own memory train to these shows, so you can only think about a takeaway," he says.

"When people come in, I want them to exit thinking that there’s a particular discordant hum, this idea of a swap meet — there’s this incredible anticipation, you see the cars in the parking lot and all the people, and then halfway through, you’re like, 'This is junk.' The despair and hope of a Mesa swap meet. To me, that’s real life. It’s a real transaction along with an emotional transaction — the interchangeability, the randomness of our exchanges and our encounters, and that’s this idea of 'Swap Meet,' the slipstream of both objects and persons."

"Swap Meet" continues at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 7380 East Second Street, Scottsdale, through October 9. At 7 p.m. on Friday, April 1, Kahlhamer will perform music as part of an evening of "swap meet-style performances." Cost is pay-what-you-wish. To RSVP, visit smoca.org/event/live-swap-meet.

And for more art by Kahlhamer, the Tucson Museum of Art is showing "Brad Kahlhamer: 11:59 to Tucson" through September 25. Visit the museum website for more details.
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Jennifer Goldberg is the culture editor and Best of Phoenix editor for Phoenix New Times.