One wants to root for Brad Kahlhamer. A Native American, he was born in Arizona and adopted by a German American couple who took him to Wisconsin. A rock 'n' roll roadie during the '70s and a design artist for Topps chewing gum in the '80s, Kahlhamer emerged as an artist in the early '90s with installations of junk and scatter-related objects (which I can barely remember). Mid-decade he switched to painting.
I reviewed his show of small paintings at Bronwyn Keenan three years ago. Last spring at the Gramercy Art Fair, I caught a glimpse of large, airy, exuberant paintings at the Deitch booth -- they were Kahlhamer's -- and knew that here was a good match.
Though the art world's avid appetite for art-school hothouse flowers proves that we adore rookie sensations, Kahlhamer's crooked path to creative coherence makes him an underdog hero to anyone not yet famous. Kahlhamer has definitely paid his dues, and paid dues make for mature art.
In his recent work, Kahlhamer has found a wide open space, represented by broad fields of white paint, in which to merge his Native American heritage and the love of his escapist pop-culture life as a guitar player (Kahlhamer has issued a CD). A landscape marked with monoliths constructed of guitar amplifiers or speakers is the primary trope of a suite of paintings that were hung at Deitch, as well as in group shows at Patrick Callery and Brent Sikkema this past summer.
In these works Kahlhamer creates a mental landscape, a psychological Monument Valley. But this time the director is not John Ford but an unrepentant roadie, admittedly of the Aerosmith generation sort, who sees stacks of speakers refashion the American West as a "forest of signs" issuing forth smoke-signal hallucinations of memories of ethnic and assimilated American life.
The landscape provides an exciting compositional and conceptual device, giving a strong, expressive voice to what are essentially abstract paintings. The large works have a facture built on vertical thrusts of gray speakers and amplifiers against expanses of red earth and blue sky. Along the lines of the horizons, in lessons learned no doubt by looking at cave paintings, Kahlhamer lets the space conjure up eerie Western visions. These are rendered in scratchy words, scrawled in a graffiti way, or images sketched in black paint in a vague or precise way, suggesting stories.
Sometimes, as in Starry Skies 11:59 PM, the artist seems to be carving his memories (like a lover) onto space, while elsewhere, as in American Eagles USA, broader, almost billboard-sized commentaries of American life are offered. In most of the big paintings Kahlhamer seems to struggle with wide open spaces, which work as metaphors for America, but the struggle keeps the artist honest and limits tendencies to anecdotal detail.
In his drawings, Kahlhamer lets loose with even more political and social commentaries. In works like Fifth Infantry, Ten Companies,1999, he lists the dead, by way of commenting upon Indian War history and its continuation in modern life (the list includes two art critics).
Kahlhamer's use of "Indian" clichés is interesting, appealing and loaded. I grew up in Milwaukee where every summer day the Journal ran a cartoon with a Brave -- for the Milwaukee Braves -- either shaking a tomahawk or pouting in a tepee, to indicate whether the Braves, now of Atlanta, had won or lost. These Pop stereotypes have a surreal, almost stubbornly regressive allure now, which Kahlhamer perhaps feeds on.
One might fear that playing up the Native American references in his work could lead to illustration and anecdote and thus interfere with the open space and its breathtaking flow. Kahlhamer included a wall of kachina-like dolls and a bison head in his installation at Deitch, along with other elements of "Native Americanness," which I'm not altogether sure were necessary. A ceremonial drumbeat at the opening did indeed make the "voice" of the paintings come momentarily to life in a direct way.
An empty painting with the figure of an amplifier and very little else, shown at Brent Sikkema this past summer is, in my view, Kahlhamer's best painting to date. But, by and large, Kahlhamer has found a great way to speak in the "forked tongue" of mixed heritages that most, and ever more Americans speak in today, while remaining "cool" and acerbic and not getting all pious and indignant about it -- so let's listen.
ROBERT MAHONEY is a New York art critic.
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