When most people think of an art museum, they might not expect seeing things found at a swap meet.
Native American Artist Brad Kahlhamer’s exhibit at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art likely has shattered that expectation forever.
But then, the Tucson-born artist’s fondest childhood memories are sifting through lumber yards and rummaging through piles to find interesting items – and going to swap meets.
And so he has created an unusual exhibit that echoes those pastimes.
“When I first started talking to the museum about this concept, it was more around the utility of a swap meet,” Kahlhamer said. “I wanted this idea of this community outside of the typical retail system. This is really a gray economy, there’s almost this idea of a wild market.”
SMoCA describes the exhibit’s origins and goal as “Kahlhamer’s meditation on a nomadic and intersectional contemporary condition.”
“The social and cultural space of the Arizona desert swap meet reflects, models, and fuels Kahlhamer’s recent artistic practice and preoccupations,” it explains.
“At the intersection of neighborhoods, city sprawls, and open-space land, swap meets fill in the cultural gaps between communities and are spontaneous meeting spaces, where many social networks form between individuals of different ages, residency status, cultures, and race.”
Thus, it adds, a swap meet becomes a gathering place for “like-minded strangers or friends who seek out a place of meaning, belonging, or surviving.”
When guests first walk into the gallery, they are surprised by a large trailer in the center of the exhibition surrounded by what look like skeletal remains of vegetation and animals.
The exhibition gives an insight into Kahlhamer’s creative process.
Though he splits time with Brooklyn, New York, Kahlhamer also lives in Mesa in a double-wide trailer that he also uses as a studio. He has decorated the exterior with a rock garden as well as sculptures he made from fragments of skeletons and dead saguaro cactus pieces he calls “Zombie Botanicals.”
“Through all of my extensive hiking into The Superstitions and in and around Tucson, I was always struck by always finding a little bone fragment or a piece of a skull because it was evidence of life,” Kahlhamer explained. “Later on, I began picking up all these cactus fragments and pieces to make these defenders.”
Kahlhamer purchased the exhibit trailer at a swap meet in Apache Junction and filled the interior of the space with pieces of his own artwork as well as some sources of his inspiration, including stuffed animals and sketches.
“To have a trailer in the gallery and to activate it as the artist’s studio is pretty unique and I hope this is an open space for people,” said museum Director-Chief Curator Jennifer McCabe.
“You don’t usually think of a swap meet and museum in the same sentence,” she said, “so the hope is that this will be an open space for people who may not normally be comfortable in a museum.”
Outside the trailer is a deck on which Kahlhamer will perform alongside a cellist on April 1.
“The stage is to help activate the whole concept in terms of a performance situation,” Kahlhamer said.
The exhibition is curated by Dr. Natasha Boas and is accompanied by a series of performances, including Navajo Nation country act Dirt Rhodes.
“The idea of the artist is that we’re essentially always performing even for ourselves and this piece creates this tableau of which I can bring in musicians, poets and work in there – as I have,” Kahlhamer explained.
“There’s this idea of assigning personhood to objects,” he said. “When you go to the swap meet, you see this myriad of objects, a storm of tools and used bicycles. It’s personhood in objects and that is, to large degrees, revealed in this show.”
Through rock art, postcards, ephemera, sketchbooks and reclaimed or used articles of clothing, Kahlhamer aimed to create works that excite museumgoers and ignite conversations.
“When you set about to create a whole universe or whole world, all the things that excite us emotionally have to come into a show,” Kahlhamer said.
While a traditional swap meet offers an exchange of goods, the museum hopes that an exchange of ideas will emerge from the exhibition.
“The concept of swap meet as a place of exchange is really important,” McCabe said. “In this space, the exchange might be an experience, dialogue or ideas rather than things.”
There may also be conversations about contemporary native issues that could arise from display.
“The biggest change is not so much within me but that conversations are changing quite rapidly in the museum world and in academia,” Kahlhamer said. “Suddenly, we have a rise in contemporary Native issues and I think, for me, that’s the biggest change,”
“I’m hoping that this show personifies that in a more poetic way.”
While some may not notice those issues within the subject matter of the works, there are several other ideas that ring throughout the exhibition.
“Some of the ideas that are consistent through all the pieces are the idea of being a nomad or not having an exact place so you see references to cities like Gallup, New Mexico or New York City or Mexico City,” McCabe said.
The exhibition will be on display at SMoCA until October.