Eloquent Expressions of Indian Culture, Durango Herald, Nov. 7, 2006

Courtesy School of American Research Press Painting the Underworld Sky: Cultural Expression and Subversion in Art by Mateo Romero with a foreword by Suzan Shown Harjo, School of American Research Press, 100 pages, 50 color illustrations, $60 hardback, $29.95 paperback.

Courtesy School of American Research Press
“Four Worlds, Four Tides,” Mateo Romeo’s acrylic on canvas from 2000 measures 48 by 72 inches. It appears in his book Painting the Underworld Sky: Cultural Expression and Subversion in Art.

Mateo Romero writes of his art and his Pueblo heritage with the same bold, muscular style in which he creates his paintings. His words and images are thick and expressive, forcing the reader to pay attention to Painting the Underworld Sky: Cultural Expression and Subversion in Art.

As a non-Indian person, the book exposed me to the fault lines and tragedies afflicting American Indian people today, but more importantly, the fault lines and tragedies afflicting all human beings: conflict, love, war, despair and our need for compassion.

The book begins and ends with poetry, and in between are 50 images of Romero’s paintings and his reasons for creating each work, whether it was the influence of his father’s stories and experiences, the observations of his peers or the exploration of his return to Pueblo culture
and religion. The work is personal and yet universal.

Romero is eloquent, intelligent and passionate. He shares his tragedies and blessings with equal aplomb, expressing them as an objective observer.

Romero describes himself as a plein-air painter of the metaphysical. “Painting the
various stories and parts of the underworld sky is, in essence, a landscape painting,” he writes.

A member of the Cochiti Pueblo, Romero lives with his wife and children in her village at the Pojoaque Pueblo. As an American Indian artist engaged in the process of cultural diaspora and the return to native land and culture, there is anger, frustration, enlightenment and beauty in his words and work. As a person of mixed heritage, I found myself envious of American Indian people’s ability to reclaim their culture. I have no culture. I have no cultural home to which I
can return; it has been destroyed in this melting pot called America.

Romero seems to recognize this as well, and his painting “Cowboy of Troy” from 2002, a mixed media on aluminum flashing on panel, features a red line along the left side, somehow knotted together.

“The vertical red line in the left portion of the piece symbolizes the shared common mortality of all mankind,” Romero writes.

The painting lists all the casualties from the war in Afghanistan – dead, displaced and refugees – the number of casualties from the Sept. 11 attacks and from hate crimes against ethnic minorities. It is the red line that ties us all together. We must come to see that we are all connected.

This, too, is an idea that Romero mentions, borrowing from art historian Bruce Bernstein: “A more complex approach to the contemporary indigenous experience across the globe would be to realize that all native communities have constantly been interacting with other native communities throughout time in a state of cultural synergy, idea exchange, technology exchange and flux.” He goes on to say that in the last 500 years, the mix has included Europeans and the number of indigenous players has become increasingly scarce.

For Romero, some experiences are culturally unique and do not translate into other perspectives or experiences. He explored this idea in an exhibition called “Divergent Worlds.” A painting from that series in 2000, “Four Worlds, Four Tides,” acrylic on canvas, juxtaposes a Pueblo deer dancer against a background of Tide detergent logos. For the artist, “the logo
becomes a signifier for mainstream, corporate, postmodern experience.”

Romero goes on to say that a common misperception about and among American Indian people is that the experience of their ancestors was somehow more authentic, real and culturally relevant than their own current experiences. The mainstream world values the past more than the Indian people value the present.

This is particularly true in the art world, where the work of the past is ensconced in museums while those who create art in the present are discounted.

Painting the Underworld Sky challenges readers to construct meaning by free association with Romero’s words and images. He captures birth and death, war and love, rebirth of culture and dances in his book. He tells intricate, nuanced stories of human existence; these moments and stories are documented in his artwork as well.

“Mateo paints and it is ceremony,” Suzan Shown Harjo writes in her foreword to the
book. I would add, that he writes, and it is ceremony.

lgoebel@centurytel.netLeanne Goebel is a freelance arts journalist from Pagosa Springs.

Contents copyright ©, the Durango Herald. All rights reserved.

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