A little boy stands tall beside a Saguaro cactus in an enlarged black and white photo inside the Tucson Museum of Art. Born in 1956, the boy is Brad Kahlhamer, a mixed-media artist based in New York and Arizona whose creative practice reflects his everyday attempts to find and create his own identity. The exhibition Brad Kahlhamer: 11:59 to Tucson is named for the time and place of the artist’s birth but also references the 1957 film 3:10 to Yuma, which was set in the American West.
Kahlhamer was born to Indigenous parents whose tribal affiliation he’s never known, and adopted as a baby into a German-American family who would eventually settle in the Midwest. Hence the hybridity that serves as a through line in his body of work comprising primarily paintings, sculptures, mixed-media works, and installations. More than 60 pieces created between 1996 and 2018 demonstrate the ways he’s tried to make sense of his personal history and the ambiguities in his life.
They include “Old Tucson III” (1996), a mixed-media installation that couples romanticized notions of “Old West” towns with Kahlhamer’s recollections of models he built during childhood, and two suspended sculptures, each titled “Chandelier Nest”(2013), in which birds and nests set within human forms signal the interplay of nature with technology. Hung in opposite corners of a small passthrough, they cast shadows onto walls like whispers that will echo for generations.
One of the first works viewers see is “Skull Project” (2003-2004), which is made up of hundreds of skull renderings. This graphite, ink, gouache, and watercolor on paper piece reveals the ways Kahlhamer uses expressive marks to constantly rework his own tentative assumptions and explore his emotions.
In another gallery space, a wall installation titled “Community Board” (2002-ongoing) speaks to the ways identity is formed in relationship and community rather than isolation. The “Board” includes his own artworks, photographs, and other items he has saved through the years, as well as objects contributed by other people he’s met during his travels. A concert poster hints at his deep interest in music, while a Ted DeGrazia artwork suggests his concerns about the ways mainstream culture stereotypes and seeks to profit from Indigenous culture.
Connections to Indigenous forms of cultural expression abound in this exhibition, which is one of two solo shows the artist opened in Arizona this spring. Inside a display case, “Nomadic Studio sketchbooks 1-12” harken back to Indian ledger drawings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The books are filled with words and sketches realized while traveling or hiking, serving to chart the course of Kahlhamer’s curiosity.
Behind a small gallery wall with a poem written by Natalie Diaz, the museum is showing “Super Catcher The Sun Weave” (2018), a hanging sculpture made of wire, jingles, and pow wow bells that embellishes the form of a woven dreamcatcher to dramatic effect. The katsina dolls Kahlhamer first encountered at the Heard Museum in Phoenix inspired him to create the “Next Level Figures” (2013-2014), mixed-media pieces that he conceived as companions whose tribal ambiguity mirrored his own.
Twenty of the figures created with materials such as wood, cloth, wire, and hair are being shown in Tucson, where a grouping in the center of a museum gallery suggests a casual gathering of friends who welcome those who walk among them. Elsewhere in the exhibition, figures are precisely lined up; the symmetry of their arrangement suggests the role of guardian.
Throughout the exhibition, the artist makes masterful use of repetition. Several artworks incorporating the word “Ugh” call out stereotypes of Indigenous peoples, and numerous pieces with painted, drawn, or sculptural hair address the impact of appearance on identity.
Two short videos featuring music written and performed by Kahlhamer bookend this compelling, comprehensive exhibition. In the museum lobby, viewers see images of the artist and his work flash across the screen in “Bowery Nation” (2014). Another video, titled “Dark Hair” (2010), plays inside a gallery space, where people repeatedly hear the refrain “dark hair, dark eyes” as they’re moving between artworks that prompt them to consider ways the artist’s identity, and their own identity as well, may still be a work in progress.
Brad Kahlhamer: 11:59 to Tucson continues at the Tucson Museum of Art (140 North Main Avenue,
Tucson, Arizona) through September 25, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Julie Sasse, PhD.