LA: You curated the Chongo Brothers show. How the show
get started and what were you trying to do in it?
MR: The show started out because Bruce Bernstein [former
chief curator and assistant director, Museum of Indian Arts and
Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology, Santa Fe] invited me to do
a show a couple of years back. It was important to me that I had
license to set the show up and put the work in that I wanted to.
He was comfortable with it. So I said, "Well, let me curate
the whole thing. Let me pick out the objects, let me write the
text," and once again he was really supportive. One of the
reasons I wanted to do the show is because, for me, doing art
is one little bit of communicating and interpreting things, but
there's also a tremendous amount of power in writing, interpreting,
giving formal observations on works, so it was important to be
able to write my own text and pick out the people that I wanted
to exhibit, and that was my family. Originally it seemed that
it would be a show of my paintings, an individual thing. I thought
it might be more interesting to do a family show and provide a
broader context, because one of the things people talk about regarding
Indian art is that Indian culture and signs and symbols supposedly
cross generations and cross time. I wanted to actually put these
objects next to each other on the wall and in cases and examine
them, and ask, "Does it really work that way?" Do these
Cochiti cloud symbols really pop up everywhere, or is it a self-conscious
thing? Do we stick them in paintings so we can say that we have
a connection with the past, or is it a more intuitive and less
conscious thing, where we use them because it is part of our background?
In that sense the show asks more questions than it answers. I
definitely want people to have the space to come to their own
conclusions because I don't want to provide answers. I tried to
step back a little from saying, "Well, this is where Mateo's
family is and they're all really great at what they do, so therefore
he's great." What I want to say is, "Examine that premise,
and if you think that, you think that." The show is not about
mythologizing the self or the family but it is examining that.
LA: You've included five pieces [each 1995] that represent
"a series of historical and cultural nodal points of significance
to Pueblo culture. They orient the viewer to the tempestuous historical
relationship between the Indian and non-Indian worlds attempting
to raise a subversive critique of social issues." 2 Could
you talk about these paintings, not only the content but also
from the technique?
MR: Let's talk about the content first because I'll wind
up talking forever about the formal issues. This is how I see
it, and I've gotten some criticism from people, knowledgeable
people, but I was thinking that I could take snapshots from the
history of my people and reinvestigate them. It's not unlike what
my brother does with his pots. He has an historical dialogue he
creates with the pots. I start with a chronological development
of Pueblo history. The first panel is Pueblo Revolt, with
Native figures battling conquistadors. There's a lot of atmospheric
stuff and textural things going on in the background. There's
a church on the top, a kind of Guernica horse poking his
head out, and there's a little chicken running around the bottom.
The next panel (Consumer Market) concerns the railroad
coming to the Southwest and the pottery industry. One of the things
I wanted to examine was how the internal process of making pottery
and the internal aesthetics and values of tribal artists were
influenced by the railroad and the opening of the market industry
that we see so strongly today. One of the determining factors
right now in what we do as Indian artists in the Southwest is
the marketplace. It's such a big deal, but it wasn't always the
biggest thing. Originally, pottery was produced for internal and
ceremonial uses in village life. People didn't sign the pots.
It was a different concept of what the work was about and what
the artists were about. We've come very far from that, and we
still have a sense of cultural tradition, but it's been definitely
influenced by external values and the marketplace economy, and
the aesthetic of an anthropological blueprint for Indian art.
That's one of the things I wanted to examine with that panel.
The third one is set in contemporary times (Broken Circle),
and is not so much historical. It deals with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
issues. It's a scene in a car which I've used a lot. It's a metaphor
for me of the urban Native being out of balance with the technological
world. So often Native people are thought of in stereotypical
ways, of having a connection with nature, so by putting Indians
in more contemporary dress, doing things that are more bourgeois
and more mundane, putting them in cars and gambling situations
and things like that, it decontextualizes that noble savage, spirit
eagle-type thing that goes on. It's more like well, no, Indians
are just people, they drink, they smoke, act hurt and do stupid
things, too. It's trying to deconstruct some of the romanticism
of the Indian image, saying here are some of our very basic problems.
In this particular instance, it deals with pregnant women who
drink and that vast cycle that travels through the reservation
and causes tremendous problems for generations of Indian children.
This next piece (Corn Dancer) is probably the least confrontational.
It's not really concerned with a subversive critique, just formal
issues of color and placement of the figures in the painting.
It's actually based on a Japanese woodblock print of a samurai
and geisha that were in this configuration, with the samurai kneeling
down at the geisha's feet, with the rain coming down over them.
In the original she had a parasol so I recontextualized that and
gave her an umbrella. It also deals with a really flattened sense
of space. These figures are almost floating out there and there's
not much of a a background or foreground. There's not much of
an illusionistic space. It's very flat in that respect. Depending
on how you look at it, I think one of the strengths of the piece
is that it doesn't make an attempt to put space behind or around
the figures, but just deals with them as icons right around the
The last panel (Indian Gaming) deals with the gambling
issue. Once again, it takes the oftentimes romanticized image
of Native people and makes it more mundane, putting people in
everyday, almost boring, ludicrous situations, like the overweight
guy who is chain-smoking. He's playing the bingo machines. Many
of my relatives sit around and talk about where they're going
to go to gamble because it's a huge social thing on some reservations.
It's something I like to look at and examine in light of how important
Indian gaming is right now. This particular slot machine has little
kachina symbols on it because this actually occurred at one of
the local casinos. If you hit the jackpot little kachinas pop
up, so my cousins and relatives say things like, "Those damn
kachinas won't show their faces. I was trying to make some money
and they won't show their faces." It's an absurdity, that
this modern technological world has created things like slot machines
with kachina heads on them, while at the same time Native people,
indigenous people, don't really fit into that world.
LA: In the first three pieces you have definite references
to Catholicism. Do you implicate the church in some of these contemporary
MR: Definitely that's there, especially with Pueblo
Revolt. I'm not Catholic. I was raised as an urban Indian
in the city. I was raised in the Bay area. I don't believe in
the Catholic Church. I think it's very much an external religion
of the conqueror and the rapist and I think that the politics
of the Church are very repressive and very negative in many ways.
I don't believe in a formal religion. To me, it's a very scary
thing. It's usually based more on control and manipulation of
people and knowledge and money than on anything else. But, in
the villages, it's not that way. By taking these images of the
Church and creating the historical dialogue and raising a lot
of these issues and pulling things out, it's trying to direct
some attention to why the Catholic Church so prominent in these
villages, why it has been so internalized by Native peoples, especially
in the Rio Grande villages. What does it stand for, what is it
synonymous with? As I understand it, compartmentalization means
that these religions, Catholic and Native, become metaphors for
belief. Then belief becomes a transcendental thing and the metaphors
of the religion, the formal trappings of the religion, aren't
really what's important. I think for the generation of older Indians,
the way they worship and what they believe in is kind of the same
from Native religion to Catholic religion. For me, the crosses
in the church and the male paternalism thing throw me off. I can't
really relate to it. On the other hand, my daughter is baptized,
so she's part of this whole social construct that's very entrenched,
but it's hard for me because I don't buy into it. At the same
time I can't exactly deny it to some people. I can't say to older
Indians that they can't worship, or that it's wrong. It's not
my place to say to my mother-in-law, you can't baptize my daughter.
It goes beyond just being baptized. It's a whole social construct
of knowing other people in the village, other children, and being
part of the culture, almost as much, but on a different level,
as being part of the Indian way or going to a kiva. So they become
compartmentalized, and these pieces raise some of that dialogue
in my own way by saying, "Look, this relationship you have
now wasn't always this way." I find oftentimes if you don't
prick people's consciences, they edit out historical confrontation.
I did a piece in Denver for the new airport, which is kind of
a ridiculous thing, the new airport, but they wanted me to do
a mural so I did a mural. The idea of the mural was taking a scene
from Wounded Knee. It was a very confrontational scene. I had
an Indian shooting at someone from a roof. There were many levels
to the painting, but the basic idea showed the tempestuous relationship
historically between Indians and Denver, and white America, and
the effects of expansionism on the Indians in the Plains. Denver
wants to decorate its airport with Indian art now but 100, 200
years ago they were killing Indians. So I say, "Now you think
it's really cool having art up here, but look what happened 100
years ago. Look what happened thirty years ago, or five years
ago." Wounded Knee in North Dakota is not that far from you
here in Denver. You want to edit that now. You want to think that
Indian art has pretty colors, but there's also the idea that you
can't edit it. You can't ever really get away from it. You can't
get away from the fact that the Spanish came here and chopped
people's hands off and raped people. You can't get that far away
from what happened at Wounded Knee. You can't get away from Denver's
historical role in killing Indian people. So it functions on that
very obvious level. There's no real attempt to slip that one in;
it's like a one-two punch.
LA: Maybe we could talk a bit about the technique you used
with these paintings.
MR: They started out as a very industrial process. Originally
these pieces were done on masonite with positive/negative cuts
in them, and then a tar was poured into the negative cuts and
stucco was built up on the positive spaces. I was using an industrial
snowcoat that was applied to the positive spaces to build them
up. It became a very self-conscious process. The images had to
do with figure-ground relationships, positive-negative space,
high contrast. Eventually I took that technology and transcribed
it to the gatorboard. Gatorboard is a strong foam cork so the
images started with drawings. The drawings were cut into different
shapes that determined the plane closest to the viewer and they
became a positive space. Then they're glued down to the base planes
and the background is painted in. There's also the use of stucco
and trowel and spackle and other industrial-type things. It's
a carryover of what I was doing before. It's nowhere near as raw
as the black and white stuff I've done but it has the look of
being built up, of having positive-negative space. They're process-oriented
LA: Two more things about this series. They started off as
monoprints, and you have them mounted on sections of aluminum
MR: Corrugated aluminum or some kind of industrial roofing
material. The pieces did start as monotypes because the process
got so burdened after a while with the cutting and the drawing
and the gluing that it was just easier to use the monotype process
to be loose about ideas. Ideas flow in monotypes; they're very
direct. When you get to the point where you're actually cutting
things and pasting them together, there isn't that flow, so the
monotype process was important to me so I could access some of
these images and ideas quicker. The actual aluminum siding, this
corrugated stuff that they're mounted on, had to do with playing
around with the idea of them being industrially physical. I'm
saying these pieces are physical, they're low-relief, they're
process-oriented, they're somewhat industrial, and the aluminum
we put them on to show them plays into that. And it looks cool,
LA: You work quite a bit in monoprints. Some series are desertscapes,
and some are depictions and interpretations of ceremonial imagery,
like the deer dancer pieces and Pueblo Feast Day (1995).
You work with very diverse imagery.
MR: There are definitely different types of work that
I do. I think that has to do with my early training at the Institute
of American Indian Arts and the emphasis they had on doing work
that was marketable and very accessible, so some of my earlier
pieces had to do with landscape configurations. You know, I never
get too far away from the landscapes because they always pay my
bills. I can't always do the confrontational stuff because different
work fits into different places, like a museum, a gallery, or
a market. That probably flies in the face of a lot of artists
who are going to say, "I do what I believe in and I only
do what I believe in. Everything I do I believe in and therefore,
everything I do is pristine." Some of the stuff I take more
seriously and put more into, and some of the stuff is a little
more formulaic. Often you find as a painter that when you do things
in series it gets dangerously close to being a formula. So I back
away from it a little bit. If you get too series-oriented, if
you do over twenty images of the same thing, you've probably explored
as much as you can about that subject, and maybe it's time to
do something else.
In the end, what interests me isn't so much the sense of content
or narrative that runs through the work, but the processes I'm
working with. I want to take these ideas of using boards and pouring
things and cutting things and making things and take some of the
issues like mundane bourgeois Native experience and combine them
all together, probably have them in a monochromatic context, de-emphasizing
the color, making it more structural. That's where I want to go
with it now. So I have to figure out that next step in the work.
LA: Where would you put the paintings End of the Line
and Eagle Dancer (both 1995)?
MR: End of the Line is an example of something
very accessible. It's kind of sentimental and has to do with Native
kids and the performance of a dance. It's done very well. The
paint-handling is very textural. I thought it was a great painting.
There's nothing about the technique I would complain about. It's
direct. It's quick. In terms of the subject matter, it might be
a little bit flat. It doesn't really do anything with life or
death or social issues or anything; there's no critique in this
painting. It's just what it is, a beautiful painting and it functions
at that level.
Eagle Dancer (1995) is a great painting for me. The whole
piece is just texture, movement, gesture, feeling. It's a very
nostalgic, sentimental work and I can look at it all day. I want
to keep it in my house. Yet, it doesn't function the way the kachina
heads coming up on the slot machine does. It doesn't have that
critique. It doesn't mean it's a bad painting. Formally it's a
really good painting, but there are different types of paintings
with different functions and different levels. It doesn't mean
that one's better than the other. People are attracted to different
works of art for different reasons. I try not to get pigeonholed
into doing one thing over and over, like the landscapes. I could
do them forever. They sell and they pay my bills. I never totally
get away from them because of those reasons, and I do really love
doing them. They're fun as hell to do, but at the same time, I
guess there's kind of a nagging sense of responsibility that my
art has to be a little bit more challenging, that there are some
issues I should deal with that are a little harder to figure out
than just saying, "I can paint landscapes until I'm 80 years
old." Why do just that? I want to play around with everything
and get involved in different levels.
LA: Is the technique for doing those different from, say,
"Urban Pieta" (1994) from the Bonnie and Clyde
MR: This is the opposite extreme. It has to do with issues
of latent violence, a destruction of the self, maybe alcoholism.
It's like a steamy thing that's happening with the male and female
figure, sort of Pieta configuration. It has a certain latent sensuality.
It's kind of a dangerous painting. It has a gun in it, you know.
It deals with issues of the closeness between the characters and
light and darkness.
LA: Diego has utilized Greek amphora as well as Anasazi forms.
What have been some the things you've drawn from?
MR: One thing is the Mexican mural tradition. I try to
pull in some of the strength of Rivera and Orozco. I particularly
like Tamayo. The Pueblo Revolt panel is definitely inspired
by all the scenes you find in Mexican mural art that deal with
the Indians confronting the conquistadors. It really appeals to
me in the sense of scale, its heroism, its grand joyousness, all
these things at once. They're life influences. Through travel,
I learn things, not always as literal as saying I like the composition
of Mexican mural work. I want to pull it into my work but more
subtly than that.
LA: Innovation has been a tradition in your family.
MR: Yeah, we're kind of weird about that. That's one of
the most important things for me. When I did the research for
the show I figured out that there are stylistic elements in my
father's paintings that are outside of the Dorothy Dunn Southwestern
Indian art school vocabulary. Some of my grandmother's pottery
is incredibly divergent, very much outside of the Cochiti polychrome
position, with corrugated ware, large ollas, and historic Mimbres
Anasazi pieces. I think that along with ideas of formula and formal
training, there's a lot of baggage that comes along with Indian
art and that there's a lot of predictability. There's a lot of
things you expect. You expect to find paintings of dancers. You
expect to find pots that deal with historic geometric form, but
you don't expect to see images on a pot of Indians in cars driving
around drinking beer. It's a total reconceptualization to take
this comic narrative and introduce it into a pottery dialogue.
You don't expect to find stucco on a painting or find a surface
that's built out of a painting. It's a more European convention
of painting. It doesn't really fit in with Dunn school stuff.
It doesn't really fit in with the supposed history of Indian art.
So the work is a way of saying, "Yes, even though we're Native
artists and we're very influenced by culture and ties to family
and specific geographical areas, there's also incredible room
to do what you want." You write your own ticket in a sense.
If you have the vision and there's a little bit of motivation
to do that stuff, something quite extraordinary happens, something
kind of transcendental. It's more interesting to me to look at
the aberrant and asymmetrical evolutions in art, things that don't
exactly fit in with what was going on at the time, things that
are more progressive, maybe, things that are definitely different,
things that are very individualized. It's a personal look at what's
going on. Someone could say, "This person fits within a Cochiti
polychrome ceramic dialogue." You could respond, "This
work offers a glimpse into the individual, into what the person
was thinking, into what was important to that person." They
were not just doing storyteller figures. They were interested
in ollas and corrugated ware, utility ware, and historic designs
that were much more interesting than what was being done at the
time. Now there is a tradition of Acoma using Anasazi and Mimbres
stuff, but back in the '20's, the '30's, it wasn't really being
done that way. Cochiti polychrome was a very established thing
and people did Cochiti polychrome and then a storyteller. But
this asymmetrical progression occurred and now we can look at
it and say, "This is something that we haven't noticed before.
Let's put it up and talk about it, and what comes from that."
It's opening up a discussion.
LA: You and your brother work in very different media. Are
there any similarities in your work? Are you looking at the same
MR: I think there is, in terms of content and dialogue.
We did a show about a year ago called The American Highway
which had to do with highway paintings. I was doing highway paintings
with a European sensibility of people in cars, kind of illustrational,
dealing with shallow spaces and colors, and he was doing an American
Highway series based on Mimbres bowls with these comic characters.
The idea goes back to those bourgeois figures in a banal, mundane
world, decontextualized of all the romanticism. What we both do
is provide a look into contemporary Native life. So the issues
of the mundane and the ludicrous quality of things, and even the
car, the metaphor of the car, show up in his work and mine. We
deal with it in very different ways. The mediums are totally different
and divergent, though. We talk a lot about these things. We look
at each other's work. We have a lot of interaction in the way
we look at these things and how we work on things. It's part of
a process. My studio is just across from his and he works on things
and I work on things and we talk about them. We have critiques
and the ideas wind up being recycled and reused, but the way the
work looks and the way it's done is very different.
LA: Your grandmother and father were noted artists, and you've
written about the mythologizing of the family unit and your artistic
lineage. How has their art come down to you?
MR: One of the things I wanted to point out with the concept
of mythologizing is that it can be a tactic for selling art, especially
among potters and families of potters. There's a belief that if
the work of the family is superlative, if the mother's work is
superlative, that is carried down to the next generation. It's
the concept of linear descent. If you're descended from this great
family it's assumed that you're great, too, so the work is worth
more. This is not to say that's not necessarily true, but that
idea needs to be examined. Maybe it is that way, but maybe it's
not. Maybe each person is an individual and should be judged on
his or her own merit. Maybe in the end it helps to have family
support and a sense of culture around you. For myself, at a very
young age, I was exposed to aesthetics. Just like the life experience
of traveling informs your aesthetic on different levels, that's
been a part of my life since I was a little child. I know other
artists would say the same thing. Instead of internalizing capitalist
values and saying I want to make a lot of money or be a lawyer,
I'm saying, "Oh, wow, look at the way that works. Look at
that painting on the mantelpiece. That's a great painting. Someday
I want to paint." Young children pick up intuitively on visual
details like color, form and space, and also that art can be an
identification with your own culture. So the family lineage works
in all those different ways.
LA: You wrote on the wall text accompanying the show: "This
show is a cross-section of three generations of Cochiti artists
which provides a context for individuality as well as the use
of culturally generated symbols present throughout the works.
Teresita's ceramics are the origin of the vocabulary of indigenous
design and the influence of metaphysical experience felt through
Santiago's paintings which has produced a social construct through
which Diego and Mateo continue the cycle of artmaking. Exhibiting
the works in a museum represents the acceptance of the mythologizing
of the artists and their works as superlative information, authentically
Indian -- Coke, not Pepsi."
MR: For myself, I had to resist saying that my work is
so great. Instead, I said, "Look at the work. What do you
think?" Maybe by putting the work in a museum and putting
it in a family show I've mythologized myself to the point where
I'm going to sell more work or I'm going to be the hot artist
because I've got the publicity and all the advertisements. Maybe
you could look at it and say, "You know, I like his paintings
a lot but I like his Dad's work better," or maybe, "His
work doesn't function as well as his brother's." So I'm not
so much concerned with the salespitch aspect of it as much as
emphasizing, "You examine it and come to your own conclusions."
The work is on the wall, and the text points out some clues to
unwrapping some of the riddles in the work. That's about as far
as anyone can take you, unless I sit here and talk, which is what
we're doing right now.
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
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,
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.