Brad Kahlhamer and the Self in Flux

Text by Franklin Melendez

Brad Kahlhamer’s art explores the ways in which travel impacts and shapes identity, altering our sense of self, culture and nationhood. These are intimate preoccupations for the Arizona-born Kahlhamer, who after being adopted by German parents moved from his native Tucson to Wisconsin before ultimately settling in New York City. Although he admits to a happy if typical Midwestern childhood, Kahlhamer uses these geographic shifts as allegories for his negotiation of a distant Native American ancestry with a normal middle-class upbringing. These personal concerns underlie the expressive renderings of mythical Western landscapes of his early works, culminating in his first solo exhibition, “Almost American” (2000).

In his signature ink and watercolor drawings, Kahlhamer’s bold gestural strokes evoke a broad range of figural traditions: from the exuberance of expressionism and brashness of street art, to the playfulness of cartooning and mysticism of shamanism. However, this art is not about recuperating a lost heritage, but exploring and interlacing the various strands of a present moment. Travel emerges as a constant theme here, not only in the depicted Western expanses (fantasies of a lost geography) but in the enigmatic figures that litter his large canvases, the many indices of culture spanning from native talismans to nationalist icons: guns, skulls, feathers, American flags, eagles, cowboys, etc. These incommensurable signs are accumulated as so many mementos in a long and often unrecognizable journey. But composition renders them less as melancholic traces than as constitutive fragments of a self in flux – one whose very instability opens on creativity and spirituality.

The current exhibition, “Girls and Skulls” at Deitch Projects – his third for the space – departs from a similar topography, but turns to the nebulous field of erotics. Resonant with a Native American visionary tradition, Kahlhamer’s portraits of “Urban Prairie Girls” depict enigmatic, erotic objects. Presented in various formal poses, these girls also function as doubles or reflections, caught, much like the artist, somewhere between the past and the present, the city and the West, and indeed between eroticism and death. At once fragile and expressionless, these girls ultimately pose a challenge to the viewer, questioning historiography, fetishism and authenticity. They occupy an impossible position, perhaps the oblique “third space” to which Kahlhamer often refers: that seam between cultures, between the dreamt and the real, which enraptures as it opens onto inexorable permutations.