As much as the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian’s forthcoming California Stars exhibit is about artists with roots in both New Mexico and California, it’s also about the museum’s place in the art world and the types of relationships it has fostered since its founding in 1937.
The Wheelwright has always been a notable space and welcome institution on Museum Hill, but in the hands of chief curator Andrea Hanley (Navajo), the Wheelwright has felt more urgent in recent years; Califorina Stars feels like a triumph.
In short, the show is meant to highlight notable Indigenous artists, living and dead, who hail from or are connected to California, but who formerly maintained or still have meaningful ongoing relationships with the Wheelwright. Some of the artists, Harry Fonseca (Nisenan/Maidu/Native Hawaiian/Portuguese; 1946-2006) or Frank Day (Maidu/Konkaw; 1902-1976), for example, have appeared in shows dating back decades. Others, such as designer Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock), painter Judith Lowry (Hammawi Band Pit River/ Mountain Maidu/ Washoe/ Scottish/ Irish/ Australian) or activist/artist/writer L. Frank Manriquez (Tongva/Ajachmem) have forged their connections in more recent years.
With Hanley curating the show’s combination of items from the museum’s permanent collection, plus loaner pieces from other institutions, it becomes a tour of California connections and locally adopted heroes whose impacts can still be felt.
Fritz Scholder (Luiseño; 1937-2005) appears in the show with the large and powerful “Navajo Woman and Blanket,” from 1979. Its palette skews a little darker than Scholder devotees might expect, but it’s unmistakably his. Across the room, a painting and numerous prints from Frank LaPena (Nomtipom Wintu; 1950-2018) showcase not only a master of multiple disciplines, but an almost playful take on how we regard Indigenous Americans, and how they regard themselves. Elsewhere, the haunting “Deer Magic” by Rick Bartow (Mad River band of the Wiyot Tribe) looms large in its abstract-adjacent figurative moments; scrawled across it is the alphanumeric recurring chant of “123, ABC,” which, Hanley says, became like a grounding mantra to Bartow as he was being rushed to the hospital during an emergency.
Elsewhere, raw renditions of Fonseca’s famous Coyote character stand as reminders of a certain era of Santa Fe style, and an almost jarring depiction of fire demons by Lowry reminds the viewer that legends describing the licking flames of wildfire as being almost alive ring true. Elsewhere, a triptych of self-portrait photographs by James Luna (Luiseño/Puyukitchum/Ipai/Mexican, 1950-2018) explore his dichotomous Indigenous/Mexican identity, and an ensemble from Okuma stuns with an almost uniform-like elegance while an intricately beaded backpack from the same artist features imposing spikes surrounding a design so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.
“I was trying to look at the really beautiful relationships the Wheelwright has always had with First California artists,” Hanley tells SFR. “I think there are so many different things [that brought these artists here]—the relationship with the Institute of American Indian Arts, the fact that Santa Fe is such an artistic place to be.”
California Stars Opening: 5-7 pm Friday, Feb. 10. Free. Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, 704 Camino Lejo, (505) 982-4636