November 21, 2013
Brad Kahlhamer earned his BFA from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in 1982 but did not immediately enter the commercial art world. He began his career as a touring musician and then spent ten years as a graphic designer for Topps, the company that makes Bazooka bubblegum, sports trading cards, and the Garbage Pail Kids. Now, at the age of fifty-seven, he has dozens of solo exhibitions across the United States and Europe under his belt, and his work, which is influenced heavily by his previous careers, is highly recognized. Kahlhamer’s artistic influences are wide—spanning the works of cartoonist Art Spiegelman and writer and artist Henry Darger, as well as nineteenth-century Plains Indian ledger drawing.1
One of art critics’ most common framings for Kahlhamer’s work is his American Indian heritage.2 Kahlhamer was raised in the Midwest by white adoptive parents, but his biological parents are of unknown American Indian heritage. This particular identity plays a central role in Kahlhamer’s work—from the paintings that he says are about himself to the sculptures that resemble Hopi katsina dolls.3
In a 2001 New York Times article, Dean Sobel, then the director of the Aspen Art Museum, is quoted saying, “Brad is appropriating an almost quintessential American style,” in reference to abstract expressionism.4 At the time, Kahlhamer had spent all forty-five of his years living in America as an American citizen who was raised by American parents; he attended American schools and got an American art education. And yet, for Sobel, Kahlhamer’s work is still an appropriation of an American style rather than a continuation of art history. Sobel says that Kahlhamer uses abstract expressionism for different ends than its original practitioners because he combines it with images from a different culture. His statements ignore the influences of Indian art on Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, who were all prominent abstract expressionists.
Frameworks like Sobel’s create a false divide between two separate “worlds”—Indian and non-Indian—as if the inhabitants of the Americas have not been living, loving, fighting, working, trading, and influencing one another for over 500 years. This viewpoint presumes that being Indian is incongruous with contemporary American life—that the influences of comics and rock music are not a part of Kahlhamer’s Indian-heritage identity.
A major turning point in Kahlhamer’s artistic career involved the katsina doll collection of Arizona Senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (1909–1998). As part of an increasing interest in his own heritage during his twenties, Kahlhamer visited the Heard Museum in Phoenix, which specializes in Indian art and history. There he found a collection of Hopi katsina dolls, most of which had been donated by Goldwater. Traditionally, katsina dolls are cottonwood carvings of Katsinam, spiritual beings in the Hopi religion. These tools are given to girls to teach them about their roles in Hopi society.
Predecessors to katsinas have possibly existed for millennia, but the dolls as they are now known began appearing in the eighteenth century. Though religious in nature and tied to traditional Hopi culture (there is also a Zuni katsina tradition), katsina dolls are artifacts of globalization—their styles changed according to periods of increased and decreased trade with non-Hopi collectors. In the late nineteenth century, katsina dolls grew increasingly elaborate in response to the desires of collectors, and according to the Museum of Northern Arizona, there are now more contemporary katsina dolls that have been carved for non-Hopi collectors than for Hopis.5
For nearly thirty years, Kahlhamer has been working on a large collection of dolls inspired by katsina dolls, but they vary greatly from both the traditional and contemporary styles. Though the use of feathers or bird-like beings evokes a Hopi influence, Kahlhamer’s dolls are macabre and sometimes have an industrial flair. They would not be out of place in a 1990s Nickelodeon cartoon or a Tim Burton film. When Kahlhamer began making dolls, he chose to use found materials instead of the traditional cottonwood; these materials can be seen in the nail and wire legs and arms that are unheard of in even the most contemporary katsina doll styles. Kahlhamer has also used bicycle-tire inner tubes, his own hair, discarded clothing, rope, and leather from a shoemaker on Lafayette Street in New York City, among countless other materials.6
Though he is explicit about the Hopi influence on his work, Kahlhamer doesn’t call his dolls katsinas. According to Richard Klein, the exhibitions director at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut, where Kahlhamer’s dolls where exhibited in 2012 and 2013, none of the artist’s dolls replicate any of the hundreds of Katsinam after which katsina dolls are modeled. In fact, for many years, Kahlhamer avoided exhibiting his dolls and thought of them more as personal objects, until the collection grew so much in size and significance that he felt it was appropriate for exhibition.7
Kahlhamer’s dolls are something deeper than mere imitations of katsina dolls, something new and personal. It is clear when viewing Kahlhamer’s dolls that Hopi art sits alongside the other major influences of comics and contemporary DIY culture in Kahlhamer’s aesthetic. Were Kahlhamer or his galleries to claim that his works were actual katsina dolls, perhaps then they might need to be viewed in a framework of cultural appropriation. The works instead offer a useful model for dealing with the often tricky issue of cultural influence—Kahlhamer’s strength is not that he acknowledges his influences, but that he foregrounds those influences. He is always respectfully attendant in giving credit to the tradition that inspires him. In this way, Kahlhamer’s art is a discourse among many influences rather than a passing obsession.
With Kahlhamer, a consideration of cultural influence or appropriation is not straightforward. There is no question about whether he has an Indian heritage; however, he doesn’t know whether his heritage is Hopi, Plains Indian (which includes dozens of separate nations), or any other nation(s). Ultimately, these are questions that concern only Kahlhamer and the nations with which he chooses to engage. Kahlhamer’s work raises questions of public interest about what it means to be an American Indian in the contemporary world and how to interact with cultures in which one was not raised. Fortunately, viewers need not have the same heritage to learn lessons from Kahlhamer’s practice.
- Ann Wilson Lloyd, “Building the Story of a Life Lived Between Worlds,” New York Times, May 13, 2001, http://www.bradkahlhamer.net/press/images/NYTKahlhamer-May-13,-2001.jpg.
- In this article, I use the term “Indian” or “American Indian” rather than “Native American” when not referencing a specific nation or cultural group. There is no universally agreed-upon term, and though “Indian” is sometimes perceived as politically incorrect, it appears to be preferred among the majority of American Indians in the United States. For more on this topic, see Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage Books: New York, 2006), 387-392; and Christina Berry, “What's in a Name? Indians and Political Correctness,” All Things Cherokee, accessed, November 6, 2013, http://www.allthingscherokee.com/articles_culture_events_070101.html.
- Also known by the less accurate term “kachina.”
- Lloyd, “Building the Story.”
- Hopi Kachina Dolls, Museum of Northern Arizona, accessed November 6, 2013, http://shops.musnaz.org/hopi-kachina-dolls.
- Richard Klein, Brad Kahlhamer: Bowery Nation (The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum: Ridgefield, CT, 2012), 1, http://issuu.com/aldrichmuseum/docs/kahlhamer_brochure/3?e=0.