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Mateo Romero is interested in motion—bodies and ideas moving through space, history, ceremony, art. Born in Berkeley, California, he is a member of Cochiti Pueblo; his earliest memories are of watching his father paint. Romero describes his work as juxtaposing “timeless, archaic elements of Pueblo culture” with “contemporary abstract expressionist palette knife and brush work.” In 2002 he came to SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center (IARC) as the Ronald and Susan Dubin Native artist fellow.

Like IARC Native artist fellow Jordan Craig, Romero graduated from Dartmouth College, where a studio art class persuaded him to change his major from architecture to art. That studio art class was the moment that I realized I was more interested in drawing and painting and working with the human space of the body than the architectural space of a building,” he told Kristin Maffei. After Dartmouth, Romero studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, then went on to earn an MFA in printmaking at the University of New Mexico.

Mateo Romero is a painter and multimedia artist from Cochiti Pueblo. He was SAR’s 2002 Ronald and Susan Dubin Native artist fellow. Of his time at SAR, Romero says, “It was like a Rosetta Stone that decoded everything that came after in my career. . . . You get an organization like SAR and they get behind you, it makes a huge difference in your level of confidence, it makes a huge difference in your level of intellectual curiosity and your ability to take on new types of research and directions that you might not normally do because you don’t have the time or you don’t have the money or you don’t have the space. But if you had all those things and you allowed yourself to do something . . . then it’s magical, it’s a magical experience, kind of an opening of the clouds; everything opens up, and it’s extraordinary.”
Although he works in various styles, Romero explained to Maffei how he creates the multimedia work for which he may be best known: I take portraits of people and dancers and enlarge the images onto a canvas. Then I paint onto the canvas, so it’s very much based on the idea of drawing a model.” This technique gives his paintings a “pop” that recalls the work of an artist like Andy Warhol, and yet, Romero told me, “it’s unexpected when Native people do stuff like that.”

Romero’s artworks thus reach back toward earlier artists in the Western tradition, but they also refer to the past and present of his Native community. “Because I do the photography myself, the majority of my subjects are living people,” he told Maffei, but the work also “references historic photography, because the images are black and white, and they are often of traditional dancers.” The paintings are part of “a longer tradition of photography and portraiture” that includes the historic photography of people like Edward Curtis. “Each painting is linked to a moment of ecstatic beauty. At their best, they capture and recreate a moment of the ceremony, and my hope is that people who weren’t present at that dance can almost hear a drum or feel what it is to be a dancer in the line.”

Primogeniture, Mateo Romero (Cochiti Pueblo), 1993, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 40 in. Photo by Addison Doty. SAR.2008-5-1.
This piece is a portrait of my brother, Diego Romero, and his first-born son, Mateo Holly Romero, getting ready to dance for Cochiti Feast Day. The theme of the dancer is a central, vital part of the Puebloan experience. The act of the dance is proof positive of our faith, physical sacrifice, belief. Dancers are sacred, spiritual beings, moving from a physical, terrestrial experience into a metaphysical one. The dance itself, rich and varied in its many meanings, also stands for a rebirth of Puebloan culture. . . . The act of singing and dancing constitutes the right way of being or right action for Pueblo people. Despite all of the myriad pressures placed on the shoulders of Indians throughout the centuries, making paintings of the men and women, girl and boy dancers, striking the deep resonant bass drums, and filing out of the practice house at dawn, is an act of survival and resistance. —Mateo Romero, Painting the Underworld Sky: Cultural Expression and Subversion in Art
Pot Hunters #2

As it makes connections to the past, Romero’s work also engages with the history of colonialism as it was—and is—experienced by Native people. In Pot Hunters #2 Romero photographed himself and his brother as early twentieth-century British archaeologists and transferred this image, along with images of pottery and “field notes,” which he created, to a canvas that he subsequently painted. The work satirizes early anthropologists and collectors who, intentionally or otherwise, disrespected Native peoples, destroyed sacred sites, and stole ceremonial objects. The photography, says Romero, was a “tool,” “a kind of gateway” that allowed him to create the imagery rapidly without having to spend months building it with paint. He suggests that the process of staging and taking a photo, transferring the image to a canvas, and “hanging paint” on it was also a process of elaborating on an idea—one of many—that might initially have been quite literal but was then “enlarged” by the work itself.

The process was good for me on a lot of levels because it allowed me to rapidly go through ideas. . . . With this stuff it’s much faster and it’s more accessible, and I thought it had a really interesting energy. . . . I go back and look at it now, and I think, “There’s something there.”

Pot Hunters #2, Mateo Romero (Cochiti Pueblo), 2002, oil and collage on panel, 48 x 72 in. In the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Dubin, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo by Phil Karshis. SAR.2006-7-1.
The central figures are my brother, Diego Romero, and me dressed as faux turn-of-the-twentieth-century archaeologists. Surrounding us is a series of Mexican pots painted as faux Ancestral Pueblo historic pottery. In the background, Roxanne Swentzell’s horse Toucha poses as a pack animal. The pothunters feverishly discuss the latest priceless artifacts they have recently pillaged from the earth. . . . This is part of the conundrum of my time, the rapacity of the consumption, the speed at which we destroy the past to make a lackluster, frame-housed, linoleum-tiled future. —Mateo Romero, Painting the Underworld Sky: Cultural Expression and Subversion in Art
Target

Romero calls Target “a blueprint for everything that followed.” Like Pot Hunters #2, Target combines photographic images with paint and other design elements to tell a story to the viewer who takes time to engage with the work. And like Pot Hunters #2, Target tells a story that is both specific to the artist and reflective of longer histories. To some extent, Romero says, the artist becomes a target as a result of their work “because they embed ideas in the work,” ideas that are “very personal” and “idiosyncratic.” “I haven’t even thought about some of this stuff in a long time but it’s embedded in the content of the painting you’re talking about.”

The center of Target shows Romero as a buffalo dancer. Surrounding him are images of the Atlanta Braves mascot, ancient Chaco Canyon pottery design elements, and an eagle dancer. Below him on the left is a picture from Wounded Knee. “I think that’s a timeless image,” says Romero. “The Wounded Knee stuff has always spoken to me and I’ve used it over and over again.” The image comes from the 1973 standoff between members of the American Indian Movement, US law enforcement, and the Pine Ridge Reservation community in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. For Romero, the picture represents a “timeless confrontation between existing indigenous tribal people and this mainstream capitalist technological world around us that wants to consume everything . . . and destroy the planet.”

In general, indigenous people are not down for that. . . . They’re connected to land, time, space, being, spirituality, ceremony, prayer, religion, history, pottery, all those things in the painting. They’re timeless things, from the Chaco pottery fret to the Wounded Knee, it’s one continuum. That’s the connection of common value that holds these indigenous communities together. And they’re under pressure, they’re being assailed. . . . I mean we’re constantly being beset by the system, and it’s not our system.

Target, Mateo Romero (Cochiti Pueblo), 2002, oil on panel, 36 x 40 in. In the collection of the School for Advanced Research. Photo by Deborah Dodge Winton. SAR.2003-7-1.

The idea behind this painting is a central traditional dancer, surrounded by related and seemingly unrelated series of images around the edges of the picture planes. . . . Although as the artist I have some specific ideas about the meaning of placing these carefully selected images together as montages, the real idea for me is to challenge the viewers to construct their own meanings in an undidactic, free-associative fashion. The meaning of the painting is not to tell the viewers what to think; the meaning is to prompt the viewers to think on their own terms, about the artwork, and what it means to them, how it moves them (or doesn’t). —Mateo Romero, Painting the Underworld Sky: Cultural Expression and Subversion in Art

The confrontation has been going on for the last five hundred years, and while the theme may be timeless, Native people’s resistance and activism keep them present, even as they draw strength from the past. Wounded Knee represents “the spirit of an arrest that moves through time and space, and it’s a symbol for me as a visual artist. . . . These Native people with guns, they’re gonna take a stand and they’re gonna go all the way. They’re gonna put their lives on the line. . . . So the sense of this spiritual warrior . . . emerges for me in that imagery.” From the center of the target, the artist and dancer appears to be holding up a bow, perhaps even pointing it out toward the viewer.

I don’t mean for people to be literal with it, I’m never disappointed when someone has a different reading. I’m actually interested in other people’s readings. . . . I like the idea that a piece can be open and not be literal, have a closed reading to it. . . . I was at Tesuque Village Market the other day to touch up a mural I did and some people, some women stopped and started talking to us, and their readings were really different from mine, but I was joyful that . . . this piece had spoken to them.

The movement of Pueblo people through time and space—their history—seems, to Romero, like a stream “composed of many diverse and varied currents, connected together at all points simultaneously, yet with a degree of distinction in the currents.” “Some people, villages, artwork, dances might seem at first glance to be more central, essential, or forceful within the flow of the stream,” he writes. “In the end, it is enough for me to say that, when I had the chance in my life, I chose to be a part of the flow.”

 

All unattributed quotes come from the author’s interview with the artist, June 19, 2019.

 

Each year the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research provides three fellowships to Native American artists. This post is the third in a new blog series, produced by SAR Press acquisitions editor Sarah Soliz, that will provide an in-depth look at a particular artist and his or her work produced while in residence.

Learn more about our Native American artists fellowships here.

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