On a visit to “Indian Country” at The Autry, the final venue for Santa Fe-based artist David Bradley’s comprehensive and deeply satisfying retrospective, a group of fifth graders effortlessly picked up references to Warhol, Botero and Magritte. Their avuncular leader waxed on about lost societies, anthropomorphs and commercialization; of the cash that regularly pops up in Bradley’s brimming tableaus and a nearby “Lucky Casino Note” lithograph, he asked, “What do you think of all the money?”
Such is the raw power of Bradley’s work — which centers Native subjectivities while wryly interrogating the objectification of Native people and culture — but accessibility is just the beginning. Vibrant palettes, flat lines and cartoonish, linear scenes bely an exquisitely fractured perspective that keeps contending angles and narratives humming in orbit. The resulting universe is both self-contained and expansive, its mix of contemporary and traditional symbolism animating a raucous dialogue that rumbles through Santa Fe landscapes like the ghost riders often appearing in the sky above the artist’s mortal milieu.
With decades’ worth of paintings, bronze sculpture and a few more starkly political multimedia works, “Indian Country” subsumes Native and Western art histories, iconographies of the Southwest, kitschy stereotypes, painful racist tropes and the visual vernacular of capitalism — and masterfully rearranges them in something that lands like fine art and flits like entertainment. Hollywood casts a creeping shadow, and the Lone Ranger and Tonto have recurring roles; Santa Fe landmarks, artists and historical figures, local realisms and broader folklore intermingle in various iterations. In “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream,” Bradley pays homage to Rousseau; in “Pow Wow Princess, Southwest,” Miss Indian USA stands in for the Mona Lisa.
Everywhere, pop culture and historical figures are playfully dismantled in complex compositions that upend learned assumptions. Stylized howling coyotes are frequent visitors, as are a pair of mysterious cowboy-booted legs jutting from strange angles, under tables, like a Southwestern Wicked Witch. An ogre-sized “Land-O-Fakes” butter box installation injects nostalgia with subversive wit. All these scenes are fun to read and unlock and put back together again, more so when shown together as a contiguous body of work.
Bradley’s commentary and memorialization of Santa Fe culture, people and history have made him an icon there, but as The Autry’s chief curator, Amy Scott noted, “He’s not as known outside the Southwest as I think his work merits.” They hope to change that by including him in a formidable trio of contemporary Native artist solo shows this year that also includes Rick Bartow and Harry Fonseca.
“Bartow, Bradley and Fonseca are all really sort of the same generation of native artists that begins working in the late 1970s, not long after the American-Indian movement has foregrounded the presence of contemporary Native peoples in American society, amongst a number of other disenfranchised groups,” Scott explained. “That sort of visibility and that presence translates by the end of the decade into this really interesting artistic movement that puts lots of traditional images, sources and artistic styles into conversation with the present, in ways that can be sort of subversive, sly, subtle comments on that kind of invisibility and that renewed visibility, and some of the tensions and criticisms that native people have of a society that has long regarded them as an Other.”
Bradley was born to a Native mother and a non-Native father and raised on the Minnesota Chippewa reservation, but the family was broken up, his siblings sent to different (non-Native) foster families. “It’s the product of centuries of paternalistic attitude of ‘we know better than you… shed native culture and embrace the mainstream,’ Scott said, describing this phase in Bradley’s youth. “So Bradley grows up with that thinking that his own culture is different, less desirable, outside the mainstream.”
Of course, some of the most interesting art arises out of exile — physical or otherwise — in-between spaces and the ability to straddle cultural and psychic divides, and Bradley’s capacity to see the world from more than one vantage point simultaneously is a defining, magical element. His “Indian Country” is both inside and out, forest and trees; the marginalized spaces that Native people are relegated to, and the whole country recast through a Native experience.
While serving in Latin America and the Caribbean as a Peace Corps volunteer, Bradley developed a keen interest in local indigenous folk art traditions, Scott explained. “Those tend to be very colorful, very vibrant,” a focus he took with him to the newly formed Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where he absorbed the Santa Fe Indian School painting style of the early 20th Century. It was there he met Rick West (then on the IAIA’s Board of Regents, now CEO of the Autry) and became the organization’s first student board member.
A longtime friend, West remembers Bradley as a “precocious” student with a “very strong sense of identity” in those days. Years later, he highlighted Bradley’s importance as a Native artist with an “incredible voice in addressing subjects Native,” and among those who pushed the boundary between modern and contemporary art, and art inside and outside the Native community. “He connects the two… In his ironic sense of humor, in being on one hand Native on the other looking from outside, trying to make sense of the intersection. Sometimes it’s difficult, and you can see that in his art,” West said.
“His art has political punch and point,” West said. “But at the same time — which I think saved Native people from dying psychologically — he has a wonderful sense of humor. So his art is in that respect transparent, it’s communicative.”
Responding to Bradley’s assertion in a 2015 interview that he became and remains “the most blacklisted Indian artist in the country,” in part due to his activism against the market that arose around inauthentic Native arts and crafts, West suggests that times have changed. “Most people don’t have the same response to that now, as when David thought he was being yelled at by large sectors of the art community,” he said with an audible smile, and underlying affection.
Where earlier generations of Native artists focused more on preserving knowledge and tradition from communities at risk — “they could try to protect it by visualizing it” — West said, Bradley’s generation moved from preservation “to a point where we are engaging the outside world on questions that are very important to us.”
There is perhaps no example timelier than that of our impending ecological doom, which Bradley engages in references to material destruction, desecration and poisoning of tribal lands. His critiques of the commodification of Native identity, meanwhile, point to the dark irony in marketing ornaments of a culture while threatening the environment that sustains it.
As Native Peoples, West said, “these are things that are important to us — but should be important to all of us.”
“David Bradley: Indian Country” is on view through January 5, 2020. theautry.org.