Interviews By Larry Abbott
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Mateo Romero
Cochiti


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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 surface.

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 problems?

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 paintings.

LA: Two more things about this series. They started off as monoprints, and you have them mounted on sections of aluminum roofing.

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, it's snazzy.

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 series?

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 things?

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.

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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