Artist explores his identity between Native and white worlds in a Highpoint Center for Printmaking exhibit

Brad Kahlhamer's semi-autobiographical work touches on his upbringing in a white family

Two people look at works of art.
Brad Kahlhamer (right) with Highpoint Center for Printmaking master printer Cole Rogers. Kahlhamer's new exhibit is on view in Minneapolis.
Highpoint Center for Printmaking

Artist Brad Kahlhamer coined the term “yondering” to describe a philosophy and practice that embraces a rambling exploration of the world, by wandering and pondering with his sketchbook always in hand.

Kahlhamer says yondering is a search for roots.

“I was adopted at a very early age by parents of German heritage. So I've always been sort of apart or aside from either culture, both Native and white, Kahlhamer says. “The work is really where I center myself. It’s what I call the ‘third place’.”

Much of his work and many of the characters and ideas he’s come across appear in an exhibition of new prints, “Cloudy Boy w/ Clouds” at the Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis.

While he now splits his time between Mesa, Arizona and New York, Kahlhamer spent two weeks making this series with the center’s master printer Cole Rogers this summer.

“What’s special about this show is that it was entirely made here in Minneapolis, which has an incredible Native history, as we all know,” Kahlhamer said. “I have a studio in New York and also in Arizona, and most of my work comes out of there, but this is very particular to this place and geography.’

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Kahlhamer’s career spans three decades and across the mediums of painting, sculpture, installations, and printmaking. He’s worked with Highpoint once before in 2019, when he had a solo exhibition at the Minnesota Museum of Art. Kahlhamer is represented by the Bockley Gallery and some of his work is also in the collections of the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where “Yondering” (2011) is currently on view. The Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art have collected his work as well.

An artistic print.
“Yondering” (2011) is currently on view in Gallery 369 of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Brad Kahlhamer courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

In “Cloudy Boy w/ Clouds,” Kahlhamer, also drew on his history as a punk rock musician in New York in the ‘80s and ‘90s, where he was influenced by underground posters and comic book art. For the color palette of blues, reds, oranges, and violets, however, he references pulp art of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Kahlhamer used a collage approach, painting watercolor and creating other marks on the Mylar material Denril, and pulling his prints from that.

“We started playing with some airbrushing, and he just really took to it,” Rogers says. “It just really was a wonderful combination, the way he was mixing up these kinds of crayon-like marks along with watercolors and the crow quill pen things he’s doing.”

An artistic print.
“Clouds + Ugh + Skin” (2022)
Highpoint Center for Printmaking

Through these techniques, Kahlhamer creates characters like Cloudy Boy, a sometimes-autobiographical figure, and another character called Ugh. Kahlhamer grew up in a small, predominantly white community in Dodge County, Wisconsin. In high school, he was hanging out with friends when they saw a man walking down main street.

He recalls his friends saying, “Ugh is in town.” Kahlhamer didn’t understand at first.

“So they're like, ‘This is your brother,’ you know, this being an all-white community,” Kahlhamer said. “I had this idea that I couldn't approach him. I was completely fascinated to want to connect with him, you know, you're connecting to your people, but I also was afraid in a way. I didn't know where I stood with Native-ness as a teenager.”

Kahlhamer did not approach the man, who left town a few days later.

“A lot of my work has that [character],” he explains. “In the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s there wasn’t really that consciousness of the conversations that we’re seeing now, beginning to bubble up all over America, about foundational culture.”

Standing in the Highpoint Center for Printmaking, gallery director Sara Tonko says she finds that one print in the show speaks to not only the entire series, but his lifetime of work. “Fort Gotham USA” features a loose, foggy map of the U.S. with scratchy crow quill pen figures, symbols, and stencils, all framed by a shadowy vignette.

“Basically, he’s always thinking about his identity, the identity of this country, where we are, where we have been, where we’re going, what it means for him, and how Native Americans are perceived and their place in the world,” Tonko said.

“Cloudy Boy w/ Clouds” runs through Dec. 3.