New York

Brad Kahlhamer

Deitch Projects

Entering Brad Kahlhamer’s exhibition “Friendly Frontier” was a bit like stopping off at a roadside attraction on Route 66. The viewer was immediately confronted by a wall-based installation of small kachina figures wrought from pieces of wood, nails, and old clothing, with ropy hair fashioned from unraveled twine. In a nearby corner was a stuffed javelina, its tiny but fearsome jaws parted, captured mid-prance in a diorama-like replica of its native desert landscape, which came complete with sand, cacti, and birds overhead. Handmade from feathers and scraps of fabric and hung from highly visible pieces of wire, these birds undercut the quasi-scientific presentation of the wilderness tableau and made clear the focus of the show: the axis of the “natural” and the artificial.

Much of what was included (large abstracted landscape paintings and smaller unframed ones, drawings, and various installation elements, including a wall-mounted buffalo head) took inspiration from a trip Kahlhamer recently took to Montana and the Dakotas. Exploring the American landscape and the history and mythology of the frontier is a way for the artist, who was adopted by German-American parents as an infant, to uncover his own Native American roots. His paintings open up what he calls a “third space,” beyond his known upbringing into what is unknown but nonetheless deeply felt (his American Indian ancestry). Schematized landscapes are dotted with buffalo (some dead), canoes, pine trees, and tepees. But these “natural” elements, drawn over washy, abstracted grounds, are juxtaposed with everything from half-human, half-animal figures to electric guitars, dissolving happy faces, and the artist’s contorted likeness, which recurs, along with comic book–style characters named “Missy,” “Ugh Jr.,” and “Bear,” from work to work. The influence visible here of Emil Nolde’s cabalistic expressionism—similarly based on a personalized, primeval mythology—is infused with Kahlhamer’s own brand of mysticism: According to the artist, yellow (as in the happy faces) signifies understanding, black is used to indicate the East, etc. Several paintings maintain some grounding in reality through written words that record natural conditions, such as “11:59 P.M. STARRY SKIES” or “WINDY + COLD,” while others feature phrases—such as “LOSER + CLARK”—that function as comic relief from the symbolic weight of Kahlhamer’s identity search.

The oppositions—nature/artifice, individual/culture—that drive Kahlhamer’s work are also manifest at the level of its reception. On the one hand, his enterprise is imbued with outsider cachet (think Jimmie Durham meets Jean-Michel Basquiat). On the other, the presumed sincerity of this position is somewhat at odds with the fact that the work—and by extension, the artist himself—seemed quite at home on the pages of recent issues of Interview and Harper’s Bazaar. Of course, the collision of art and politics with fashion no longer constitutes a major disturbance. Kahlhamer’s work has a definite edge, but its alterity is smoothed over and codified; the intimations that his practice will disrupt the borders of criticality, or of fashion, remain disappointingly unrealized.

Meghan Dailey