"I am going to ask you a very stereotypical question," I say. Heidi Brandow nods."Were you influenced by the skater-surfer culture in Hawaii?"
She smiles big, getting the subtle humor.
A graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts and born of Native Hawaiian and Navajo parents, Brandow was initiated early on to the usual drill of being a Native artist in Santa Fe, rote dialogues around stereotypes and being traditional versus contemporary—conversations that rarely transcend dull politics to touch upon the delightful and fierce reasons she chooses to make art to begin with. This is her first show in an "official" Native American context and while she is grateful, it invokes some trepidation.
"Actually it's an interesting question. Yes, the Asian influence in Hawaii was something you could see everywhere in the culture. I definitely took all that in," she says.
Brandow's "monsters"—badass creatures on frames textured with drywall plaster then enshrined in resin to be seen in booth #212—are instantly cosmopolitan and dreamy, of no place in particular other than that which she has dreamed of as boldly "other." They are pets and impish characters enveloped in an awesomely joyous drama. Brandow began painting them in 2002. When finished with her first series, she carted them off to Jason Aufrichtig, owner of Counter Culture Café. He immediately gave her an exhibit, which quickly sold out.
"The monsters are my bread and butter," she says.
Brandow traveled a lot with her family growing up, ended up at the Native American Prep school in Rowe, then attended IAIA. Like many graduates of the school, she has made living in the strange cultural landscape of Santa Fe bearable through her friendships with other artists, some of her allies being Dana Chodzko, Jeff Kahm and Nora and Eliza Naranjo-Morse, whose house she went to just the other day to cut the material for her monster frames.
The studio in Brandow's house is very small, lit on all sides by transom windows. Her son greeted me when I arrived at the wrong door and helped guide me to the back where the artist signaled from her chair. The atmosphere of serious engagement she created from her workspace immediately energized me. My eye fell on a drawing on a shelf of a fold-out chair with numbers surrounding it—a kind of maniacal diagram.
"I just returned from a residency in Istanbul. It was about industrial design, so it was very mechanical and technical, not what I'm used to," she points out. "I did this whole series on folding chairs; the way they are presented in my images I think brings up a lot of ideas. You take this simple thing and then you provide too much information, humans always overanalyze things—everything always has to be so sexy, super-sexy—so then there's this chair."
"What can be more simple than a chair?" I ask.
"Exactly. And we have to make it a problem around it. Also, there's this idea of what is sacred and not sacred," she explains.
While Brandow's work stands on its own without one having to know of her Native American identity, there's something thrilling about looking at her images of folding chairs and engaging ideas about indigenous experience and thought.
Back in the studio she pulls out an image of birds, with the same odd little numbers around them.
"A bird just as a bird is fine on its own, right? But we have to complicate things," she explains.
The artist points to a pattern surrounding the birds, which looks like a wooden perch in the shape of an X repeated.
"These images are actually based on contraptions people put on their roofs to deter birds," she muses. "They can kill birds actually. I like the idea that there's something sinister in this image that at first you think of as being pretty."
"It is quite pretty," I said. "And the numbers. They resonate with a kind of mysticism. Do you ever have people asking you, 'Hey, what do these numbers mean? You must have special wisdom? After all, you are Native American and you must know things?'"
Brandow laughs. I'm thinking there's some joy for her in the thought that her painting might be bought and hung in a house for its purely aesthetic and projected mystical qualities, all the while there's a sinister subtext. A bird beset by all sorts of troubles. The idea of this brings me joy as well, the trickery of it.
"But the monsters, they are trouble-free it seems," I note.
"Oh, totally," she finalizes. "The monsters have no problems."