LOS ANGELES — The American Southwest frequently appears in artist David Bradley’s work as a fever dream of lived experiences, Native American histories, mythic figures, and classic stereotypes. Indian Country: The Art of David Bradley, now showing at the Autry Museum, is a survey of an artist whose adoptive home of New Mexico and identity as a Minnesota Chippewa living in the Southwest figure largely in his paintings and sculptures.
The Santa Fe Indian Market takes place every August in New Mexico, attracting thousands of visitors and showcasing work by Native American artists from across the country. In one of Bradley’s panoramic paintings of Santa Fe, the market is depicted as a lively scene full of artists, tourists, and eccentric locals. Like many of his works, the painting has a satirical bent and is unsparing in its portrayal of the event’s commercialism and commodification of Native American cultures. Tourists line up with handfuls of cash to purchase the latest ribbon-winning artworks, while artists and merchants sell their wares along a commercial thoroughfare full of consumerist distractions, from discount jewelry to Gucci clothing.
The painting, however, is not all biting humor or about renouncing the activities or people depicted. There seems to be a genuine fondness for Santa Fe and its inhabitants, who are portrayed less as exaggerated grotesques and more often like characters with real-life analogs. Fictional characters like the Lone Ranger and Tonto appear alongside other recurring figures in Bradley’s works, like the Zozobra, a giant effigy that’s burned down every September by Santa Fe locals, and the Pueblo clown, a trickster figure in regional Indigenous traditions, seen here riding away on a skateboard.
Another panoramic painting, “End of the Santa Fe Trail,” is far less nuanced in its portrayal of the city’s commodification of Indigenous cultures. White tourists line up to purchase stereotypical costumes and items at a gift shop, out of which enslaved Native Americans emerge to load up a truck bed full of cash. In the foreground, a strip of land marked by a “sacred Indian ruins” sign is defiled by toxic waste and bikers partying and sunbathing in the nude. All throughout the painting are spectacles of historic exploitation and present-day stereotypes, with living and breathing Indigenous peoples reduced to fry bread, pottery, and theme hotels.
Other works in Indian Country showcase David Bradley’s interest in representing Native American bodies and cultures in the context of modern art history, whether it’s the young Hopi woman with traditional squash blossom hairstyle given the Warhol treatment in “Hopi Maidens” or the homage to Magritte in “Chaco Canyon Passage,” where a kachina-faced moon appears over a man in a bowler hat in Ancestral Pueblo lands. Modern art history, popular culture, and Indigenous people commingle in Bradley’s imagination of the Southwest in idiosyncratic ways. Georgia O’Keeffe and Vincent van Gogh, for example, appear in Bradley’s painting of a scene in El Farol, Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant and bar, with the latter penning a letter to his brother Theo after five drinks in.
While these embellishments seem to amount to a humorous grab bag of influences and name drops, it’s the lived experience and observed details that bring to life Bradley’s Santa Fe and Native American community — the artist himself playing saxophone on stage with a local band, bar patrons singing and dancing to the music, a waitress carrying a plate of tacos and mezcal, or an Indigenous man wearing a denim jacket with an American Indian Movement patch. While his critiques of the art market and its commodification of Indigenous culture don’t pull back their punches, Bradley’s depictions of his community reflect the messy ways in which contemporary life, popular culture, and Indigenous histories collide with both humor and affection.
Indian Country: The Art of David Bradley continues at the Autry Museum of the American West (4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles) through January 5, 2020. The exhibition was organized by the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology (Santa Fe, NM) and circulated through Guest Curator Traveling Exhibitions.