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At the Autry Museum, artist transcends the expectations of the label 'native artist'

At the Autry Museum, artist transcends the expectations of the label 'native artist'
Detail of Harry Fonseca's "American Dream Machine." (Autry Museum)

At first glance, it’s easy to see why Harry Fonseca’s Coyote pictures were his most popular. The Native American artist presented the trickster of tribal lore in fanciful scenes: dancing in “Swan Lake,” performing as Buffalo Bill, hanging out in leather jacket and high-tops.

"American Dream Machine," 2005. Mixed media on paper.
"American Dream Machine," 2005. Mixed media on paper. (Autry Museum)

With Fonseca, however, “it’s important to take a deeper look because so much happened beneath the surface,” says Amy Scott, chief curator at the Autry Museum of the American West. “Coyote was a vehicle for self-exploration with which Harry took on the slyly subversive theme of insider in the outside world. His art could be joyous and accessible yet critical and complex, a bridge between the traditional and contemporary.”

Scott says the Autry is “working to celebrate this rich legacy” now that it is home to Fonseca’s personal archive and more than 500 pieces of his art, thanks to a major acquisition announced in July. Plans for an exhibition drawn from the collection are underway. More than 40 items are on display currently.

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Fonseca, who was of Nisenan Maidu, Hawaiian and Portuguese ancestry, was born in Sacramento and began his career in California. In the 1990s, he moved to New Mexico, where he died at 60 in 2006. He gained fame in the 1970s with Coyote, a character he revisited for decades. Another significant series was inspired by the California Gold Rush and includes paintings made by the American River in the late ’90s. “These are abstract landscapes embedded with pieces of the land itself,” says Scott, “with red streaks referring to native blood spilled.”

“Harry was always exploring,” she notes. “He was eager to defy expectations.”

Harry Fonseca's "Chief's Blanket Second Phase (Variations on a Theme 8)," 2000. Acrylic on canvas.
Harry Fonseca's "Chief's Blanket Second Phase (Variations on a Theme 8)," 2000. Acrylic on canvas. (Autry Museum)
Harry Fonseca's "A Gift From California," circa 1979. Acrylic on canvas.
Harry Fonseca's "A Gift From California," circa 1979. Acrylic on canvas. (Autry Museum)
Harry Fonseca's "Untitled (Discovery of Gold series)," circa 1997. Mixed media on paper.
Harry Fonseca's "Untitled (Discovery of Gold series)," circa 1997. Mixed media on paper. (Autry Museum)
Harry Fonseca's "Untitled (Discovery of Gold series)," circa 1997. Mixed media on paper.
Harry Fonseca's "Untitled (Discovery of Gold series)," circa 1997. Mixed media on paper. (Autry Museum)
Harry Fonseca's "In the Silence of Dusk They Began to Shed Their Skin," 1995. Mixed media on paper.
Harry Fonseca's "In the Silence of Dusk They Began to Shed Their Skin," 1995. Mixed media on paper. (Autry Museum)

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