Contemporary Native American painter Tony Abeyta finds emotion in landscape.
Tony Abeyta paints remote regions, but his landscapes are neither still nor silent. They seem to pulsate with activity, and one can almost hear a sort of sound when looking at them, as if they were emitting vibrations. Abeyta’s skies are striated with zigzag brushstrokes that seem to depict lines of force that are always there but normally invisible to the eye. And when the skies let loose with rain, drenching the mountains, trees, or desert beneath, the rain comes down in stylized bolts that look like extensions of what has been going on up in the clouds. Abeyta does a lot of his work in the Santa Fe area, where he has a home, and his approach captures the special dynamism of the New Mexico landscape, in which the light is quick to shift and the weather sweeps across the wide skies. “The way I look at landscape,” says the artist, “it’s specifically tied to certain places, certain times and seasons, the way the clouds move, the changing weather. This is nature’s language.”
And yet Abeyta’s art is fundamentally human-centric. “The real meat and potatoes for me about painting landscape,” he says, “is what does it evoke in our human consciousness. What do we derive from the light, darkness, rain?” Abeyta is Navajo, and his relationship to the land, especially that of New Mexico, is profoundly informed by his culture. The Navajos, in common with most Southwestern Indians, believe that their ancestors came up from the underworld into this world in primordial times. That origin myth resonates for him: “I’m Native American, indigenous, a man birthed from the underworld. I’m Navajo. And I honor that in creating work that addresses that.” In his earliest work, starting in the mid-1980s—Abeyta was born in 1965—he directly depicted Navajo myths and symbolic figures in his paintings.
By John Dorfman