Interviews By Larry Abbott
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Diego Romero
Cochiti


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LA: You do three distinct types of pottery. One style, featuring the Chongo Brothers in the American Highway series ("Mimbres People" and "Chongo Brothers," both 1994), are like x-rays, showing what's happening on the surface of the earth and also what's just below the surface.

DR: That's a little gimmicky gag I threw in there but it works for me. I like it. These pots are views of landscapes, and they show both what's there and what's not there. They're an interpretation of what we see and what we don't see, an interpretation of what's really out there. They've become more Anasazi-looking in recent times, too. I've developed the automobile into something like a cloud symbol. Most Pueblo pottery, the historic stuff and even contemporary work, addresses a dialogue with fertility, rain, growth, and animals associated with that, whereas my dialogue centers around post-industrialization, the commodification of Indian land, water, alcoholism . . .

LA: A number of the "Chongo Brothers" pieces deal with drinking.

DR: Exactly. That's what this all addresses. The pots are amusing anecdotes of urban Indian life. Here we have the Chongo brothers out in the desert and they're drinking over the bones of their ancestors, which is where they belong, not in a museum. They're just two alcoholic bros that fight and love and hate and live life. In "Time Machine" the Chongo brothers are in a comic situation. They're in their car in outer space. I was going to put a Mayan space traveler in it but I thought that would be too literal, so I went for the spaceship.

LA: Are they personas of you and Mateo?

DR: No, they're not. I always get asked that question and no, they're not my brother and me. There are elements in them that are very much us, but there are also my cousins and my uncles, and a lot of the stories that I narrate are not really my own. They're a mixture of a lot of Native individuals, but beyond that they're disenfranchised. They're disjoined. They're an aboriginal people in a 20th century consumer society and the work narrates the pitfalls and dualities of being a museum artifact in a not-so-museum artifact world. They're metaphors for the disenfranchised. It's all there. It's obvious when you see the work, too, and I don't want to get too bombastic and caught up in an explanation, but that's what it's about. It's a narration of cultural disintegration or cultural preservation, however you want to look at it, of urban Indian experience as well as, perhaps, reservation experience, of being a Native American or a prisoner of war in a hostile environment. There are two sides to them. They're not always drinking. There are several narrations where I did the successful Chongo brothers. One was the Indian market poster boy and one was a casino master. It's not all about the Indian that passes out on the road and falls in the ditch drunk. It's also about the Indian that becomes involved in tribal politics, opens casinos. They encompass everything so in that sense, they're no one specific person at all.

LA: "Landscape" (1995) from the American Highway series creates more of a bleak environment.

DR: The industrial landscapes are void of characters in most cases. I've done several now, with trailer houses, windmills, factories. I use a factory down near Bernalillo. I like to put it in there. It's one of my favorite factories. Once I moved back to New Mexico from UCLA, the work became much more powerful because I was back in the environment that I was dealing with. The landscapes just became more dominant.

LA: You've been influenced by comic book techniques. Your brother wrote that you address the past through "a placement of historic design motifs in the same picture plane as a comic book style drawing." 1 You did the announcement card for the exhibition at MIAC [Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe] as issue number one of Chongo Comics.

DR: Actually I'm working on a Chongo Brothers comic book. I want to do it on litho plates but everybody tells me that black and white lithos don't sell. I don't even know if that's what I care about. I want to do a comic book called Tales from My Father's Past. It's all about him coming back from Korea and being relocated to Oakland, hanging out at seedy dive bars with other relocated Pueblo Indians. Tales from the Moulin Rouge is about a bar that he used to drink at. I want to do one called Chongo Love, which is about dysfunctional love stories. I have it all laid out in sketches. I draw constantly. Even the drawings on the pots are like black and white woodcuts.

LA: What's the technique for getting the drawing on the pot?

DR: I draw it out and Xerox it, then I cut it out like a paper doll and place it on the pot and draw around it with a pencil. I stencil it, paint it, and fire it.

LA: What creates the black finish?

DR: It's called Duncan Underglaze; it's commercial. I use a combination of Native clay and commercial materials, whatever I need to get the effect I want. I won't handicap myself because it's not all Native materials. For me, my dialogue and my narrative is what I'm really working with, but it is Native clay. I dig the clay, a lot of the slips are Native, the black is commercial, the gold is commercial, and I fire in a kiln. I experiment with pit fire, too, but I haven't really perfected that yet.

LA: Do you think you would get the same result from pit fire?

DR: You wouldn't, unless you mastered it, but that takes years. Lots of trial, lots of error. For instance, all my grandma's pieces are pit-fired. You can see smoke clouds, and it has more of a dusty look, not as clean. Mine are whiter and more shiny. Pit-fired pottery has a certain quality that's very beautiful, but you can only get it by pit firing. You break a lot of pieces when you pit fire, which is a deterrent for me. If I've invested on a bowl, I want to control the firing process as much as I can.

LA: How long does it take to do a piece from beginning to end, like one of the Time Machine pieces, which is fairly large?

DR: Maybe a couple of weeks. That's not working eight hour days, though. It's six hours here, twelve hours here, four hours here. That one was built by coil. I'm proud of that. I've got that technique down pretty well.

It only took a day to build the pot, maybe a day and a half. I came into the studio around ten in the morning and probably had that pot done by one or two the next morning. Then it has to dry. The sanding takes another day, then the burnishing, which has to all be done in one day, too, but not an easy day. That was probably a twelve to fourteen hour day. I just sat there and burnished that whole pot from start to finish. Painting it, I picked at it over a week, maybe get the car in one day, then the background the next day.

LA: Another very different style of work you do is based on Greek amphora vessels. What do you see as the main difference between the American Highway series and the amphora pieces? The figures in both series seem to have similar faces.

DR: I use Greek imagery, but it's centered around a glorification of Indian mythology. It's exactly the same as the Greeks. I looked at a lot of the Greek pottery and amphoras. It's one of my true loves, the prehistoric pottery from Greece, the narratives with Hercules and Odysseus and Agamemnon. My work takes the same approach; it's a glorification of the superhero. It's elevating characters in mythology to superhero status, giving them Herculean stature. For instance, "The Runners" is a better example because it has more of an historical narrative which the "Hero Twins" really didn't have. I'm still working through this whole Greek series but it's more of a narrative at this point.

LA: Do you take the figures from Cochiti or Pueblo mythology?

DR: I do. These in particular were the runners that carried the knot from Pueblo to Pueblo during the Pueblo Revolt. This piece is called "The Knot Bearers," and how it came about was I had put the Mimbres bodies on the runners but they were too exaggerated. The exaggerated bodies worked well for the Chongo brothers because they're cartoony, almost like Itchy and Scratchy. They can have that liberty, big arms and everything. But it didn't really work for the runners. Then I decided, wow, look at the Greek amphora runners. It would be a gas to start using these bodies and that style. It really came together. The Indian technique lends itself to the Greek amphora style. It's like a high-burnished, etched style. I've seen other people try to use the Greek technique, but for some reason it didn't work for me because of the underglazes and overcoats. Because mine are done with an Indian technique, it pulls together and gives that luster to it, that sensuous satin finish. It's not a glaze but it's not matte either.

LA: Do any of your other bowls in this style deal with incidents from Pueblo history?

DR: I have a whole narrative regarding incidents from Pueblo history. I'm constantly working on that. Actually, I'm going to start making Pueblo Indian pottery that has elements of the Greek amphora, like the handles, and I'll probably use gold in the style of Sevres porcelain. These are all porcelain, the gold ones. All this stuff has an historical reference point. The gold elevates the status of objects by gilding it and making it not just an object but a trophy. Do you see how that works? OK, so all these things are coming closer and closer together. This is all a transition. All these separate elements are unifying as the art matures, and as I mature as an artist. What I'm working on now are the vessels and I'm going to put a whole historical narrative on it, probably dealing with the Pueblo Revolt. Much in the same way that the Greeks have Odysseus and Agamemnon and Apollo, I'll have all the Pueblo warlords like Malacate and Pope, all dressed in their war outfits in the Greek amphora style talking to Masewi and Uyuyay, dealing with a Pueblo historical narrative.

You open any American history book up and it talks about Christopher Columbus discovering America, George Washington crossing the Delaware, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War. But you don't find any references to the Pueblo Revolt, the Martyrdom of Spanish Priests, all these beautiful histories, untold histories. You really have to research it. It's there, though.

LA: And you're bringing that history out on the pots?

DR: Right. I'm narrating it, researching it and bringing some of the stories to life, much as the Greeks did with their history on the amphora painting. But they're still distinctly Indian pots. That's the kick about it. They're all Indian pots. No matter how far I've pushed it with the porcelain and the cobalt and the Chinese style, it's still distinctly Indian pottery. I always wanted to maintain that through undergrad and grad school. When we'd have our critiques people would say Indian art was a craft and I was using it as a crutch. These negative views toward Indian art made me stronger and firmer in the belief that my art was Indian art and that's what it was about and it was going to stay that way.

LA: You work with the Greek amphora style, you have a modernized Mimbres style that you use in the American Highway series, and a third style based on historic Anasazi designs. How did these three styles evolve?

DR: That's a good question.

LA: Did they parallel each other or did one lead to the other?

DR: I would say that they kind of paralleled, but not in a well-defined way. I worked through a number of phases in my career, and different points in a particular period's work were carried over into other periods. For instance, the gold Anasazi vessels are definitely trophies. They are elevated, but as far as having a narrative, they didn't really address that. Eventually what happened is different pieces from different styles and different references carried over into a more successful interpretation of what I was trying to do.

LA: Red and Gold Hohokam Jar (1993) interprets an Hohokam design.

DR: This would be an interrelation of this style with other styles. It's an historical shape drawn from an ancient Anasazi bowl. I've gilded it and elevated it to a trophy-level status, to more of an object. At this point, I was pushing the gold. The gold was the dialogue itself. In this one it's more of an accentuation, much like some of the porcelain and the reference to gilding. While it's a beautiful object in itself, I left this style behind. But I wanted to bring elements that worked in it into other pots.

LA: In the MIAC exhibition, one of your American Highway bowls is featured next to two of your grandmother's from the early 1960's [a Gila River bowl and a turkey bowl]. They are about the same size. Do you work from anything that she did?

DR: No, I don't. But she was doing, I think, a lot of the same things I am. These pots of hers are an historical interpretation of a Mogollon style, probably southern Arizona or southern New Mexico. See, my grandma, I realized this later, was influenced by prehistoric pottery, too. Somewhere along the line I think she was shown prehistoric vessels and I guess she was highly influenced by that. For instance, this one is a reinterpretation of old Mesa Verde pot, and while I was doing the research for this show and selecting the pieces, that influence started to become more and more apparent. It wasn't just Cochiti polychrome that grandma was doing; it was also a reinterpretation of prehistoric pottery. She was drawing from many influences. I think that's exactly what I'm doing. And I think my father did that in some of his paintings. And I find it interesting that it wasn't conscious, it's more like written in the program, so to speak, that we have this similar thought process or way of interpreting.

LA: Even though you're interpreting historic and contemporary life, you're very conscious of protecting Cochiti symbols and images.

DR: I work within, as far as I know and to the best of my knowledge, the code and framework of what my pottery tradition and people allow. People are always looking at my pottery and commenting, and what's correct for some villages isn't for others. For instance, Santo Domingos won't paint cloud designs but Cochitis will. Hopis make kachinas, but Rio Grande Pueblos don't, so even within ourselves as a culture, what's correct for some isn't correct for others. That's fine. I just play by my village's rules and stay away from what I feel to be in bad taste. Particularly, I don't really like to do religious imagery, such as clowns or kachinas. That's my personal preference. I feel that my religious life and my spiritual life aren't really for sale. My art really isn't about going to the mountain and praying. My art is about these disenfranchised people, or franchised people, whomever we're dealing with; it's more about an experience, a less metaphysical spiritual experience. There's a certain human element to the work that everybody reads into.

LA: How much of your family history do you think influenced you?

DR: From day one I was encouraged to do art. My father was a painter and art teacher and there was always his aspiration that some day I would be an artist too, and take it as far as we could in our family. And my kids do art. Some people emphasize sports from day one with their children. I just grew up drawing, making pots, and reading comic books.

NOTES

1 Mateo Romero, Chongo Brothers: Third Generation Cochiti Artists, exhibition brochure, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, NM, dated July 10, 1995, unp.

2 quoted from the accompanying wall text

SELECTED EXHIBITIONS

Chongo Brothers: Third Generation Cochiti Artists, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, NM, 1995

Tamarind Collaborative Lithographic Workshop, group exhibition, Albuquerque, NM, 1994

University Art Museum, group exhibition, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, 1994

Institute of American Indian Arts, group exhibition, Santa Fe, NM, 1992

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Jason Silverman, "Showcasing Works of Remarkable Cochiti Family," Pasatiempo [Santa Fe New Mexican] (August 11-17, 1995), pp. 6, 63.

Mateo Romero, Chongo Brothers: Third Generation Cochiti Artists, exhibition brochure, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, NM [dated July 10, 1995], unp.

Kathleen Brown, "Space and Time: Artful Encounters in the Denver International Airport," Southwest Art (April, 1995), pp. 77-80, 90.

Lis Bensley, "1 Potter + 1 Painter = 2 Bros," Pasatiempo (December 9-15, 1994), p. 8.

William Clark, "Artist Links Pueblo Roots, Urban Life," Albuquerque Journal (August 19, 1992), pp. 37, 46.

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