The Punchline at the End of Art
Diego Romero connects viewers across cultures through the tongue-in-cheek
BY EMILY WITHNALL
One of Diego Romero’s favorite activities is watching people react to his art. He keeps a low profile and usually not even the security guards know he’s the artist. Hiding in plain sight, he looks on as people study his Pueblo-inspired pots with comics painted inside them. With work in places like the British Museum, the Cartier Foundation, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Romero has lurked in numerous museums around the world over his 30-year career and delights in the groans, sighs, and chuckles his art elicits. “It doesn’t matter whether they speak English or not,” he says. “They can take one look at my pot, look at each other, and then just start laughing.” Whether he’s combining Moche stirrup bottles with a Homer Simpson Chia Pet head or a neo-Mimbres style pot with a Pueblo version of Uma Thurman’s iconic Pulp Fiction pose on it, Romero is adept at eliciting reactions.
The 55-year-old potter grew up in Berkeley, California, with a Cochiti father and non-Native mother. He discovered at a young age that humor allowed him to make connections across class and gender. Later, when political themes entered into his art, humor made it easier for him to tackle challenging topics. His voracious appetite for Marvel comics as a child only strengthened his interest in narrative and humor, compelling him to draw and create stories of his own.
Defining Romero or his art is not easy. He is not, in strict terms, a Cochiti potter, because he did not grow up at Cochiti Pueblo or learn traditional Cochiti pottery. In fact, in the early 2000s, he stopped digging his own clay and began using commercial clay—a practice some older Pueblo potters frown upon. As Romero is quick to point out, comics and pottery are considered to be crafts, not fine arts.
Romero embraces the freedom that comes with working outside the confines of fine art or traditional Pueblo art. “I make what I like,” he says, “not what people are taught to like.” He acknowledges other Pueblo potters as making this freedom possible. He calls Santa Clara potter Jody Folwell the “matriarch of contemporary Pueblo pottery,” saying, “She’s very bold in her pottery and was doing it long before the rest of us. She opened the door for us to step through.” Romero also acknowledges the groundbreaking work of Pueblo potters Roxanne Swentzell, Virgil Ortiz, Jason Garcia, and Susan Folwell. “Timing is so critical,” he says. “I’ve had success, but fifty years ago it wouldn’t have worked.”
Romero aims to create art that resonates with formative human experiences. “Most people have experienced loss and love, and when you’re using the human narrative as the basis for the art, you really can’t go wrong,” he says. “That’s the secret.” He is also well known for the political messages in the images painted on his pots; galleries often contact him requesting a piece with no specifications other than that they want “something political.” As a news junkie and history buff, he’s happy to receive these broad requests.
Romero has shown his work widely over the last few decades, including a joint show in the early nineties at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture with his brother, painter Mateo Romero. Earlier this year, the Romero brothers were honored as MIAC’s Native Treasures Living Treasures. Romero ends the year at MIAC, too, with his first solo show in the United States.
The show, curated by MIAC Curator of Ethnology Tony Chavarria, Diego Romero Versus the End of Art, sports a title inspired by Sam Raimi’s 1993 madcap horror film, Army of Darkness. Chavarria shares Romero’s love of comic books and action movies, and felt that a comic-book-like structure would be the best way to display the work.
Like a comic book storyline, The End of Art introduces immediate intrigue and tension. In this narrative solo show, Romero is the heroic protagonist who must triumph over the ominous presence, the End of Art.
The show features over forty pieces borrowed from collectors which span his entire career. The collection includes a recent climate-change-themed piece, commissioned for Shiprock Gallery, depicting his Native comic book figure, Chongo, on a raft as waters flood Santa Fe’s Museum Hill. The show also features a series of bowls chronicling the Pueblo Revolt and an eight-bowl series inspired by—and poking fun at—the 1970s Charles Atlas ad, “Make a Man Out of Mack,” which encouraged men to bulk up to please their women. In one bowl a Pueblo woman’s speech balloon is directed at her skinny boyfriend, and instead of text, it displays the image of a plucked chicken.
One section of the show features work from his family, including art by his grandmother Teresita Romero; his dad, Santiago Romero; his brother, Mateo Romero; his wife, Cara Romero; and his son, Santiago (Santi) Romero. Although it’s billed as a solo show, no Diego Romero show is complete without family work. Being a father is big part of his life. “I’ve always been a dad,” Romero says. He has five kids; two still at home and three adult children. “I’ve always had a small kid hanging onto my pants—it’s who I am.”
Romero’s show, on view at MIAC through January 4, 2021, features accompanying graphic-novel-style literature. Chavarria says that traveling to San Diego’s Comic-Con with Romero in July helped inspire the idea. Although Romero’s audience at Comic-Con was entirely non-Native and unfamiliar with Pueblo art, his art drew people in. “It really resonates with people of different backgrounds because of his graphic style and narrative,” Chavarria says.
Romero was in his element at Comic-Con. It was his first time there, and he enjoyed teaching comic fans about Pueblo pottery, Greek history, culture, and human nature. In one long run-on sentence, he breathlessly relays the stories of Hercules and Odysseus that he told there. “These stories are all painted on Greek vases, which basically are the comics of that time,” he says.
By all accounts, Romero was like a kid in a candy store at Comic-Con. His top two goals there were finding an issue of Tank Girl and buying the last issue of one of his favorite series, The Walking Dead.
While he says he’s satisfied with The Walking Dead’s uncharacteristic happy ending, Romero tends to be both disturbed and amused by the repetitive narratives that humans live through. He describes himself as a “chronologist of the absurdity of human nature;” a documenter of “the conflict man has with himself and the ongoing quest for understanding of oneself.” He says, “That’s the absurdity of it, right? We don’t even really know ourselves.”
Romero is quick to smile and laughs often. On the July day that we meet, he wears a Comic-Con T-shirt depicting Batman choking Joker. A big table occupies the center of his Santa Fe studio, drawings of mounted knights scattered across one end. It’s the same table he had in childhood when he used to draw on it and play Dungeons and Dragons with Mateo. He glances at his current drawings and chuckles. “Fifty years later, I’m still drawing knights on horses.” His bookshelf is a boards-on-cinderblocks affair and is packed with titles like Spiderman the Icon, The Anasazi, and Uniforms of World War II. Two kilns sit in opposite corners of the room and a TV is perched within view of the table. Romero watches CNN all day as he works, and when he can stomach it he sometimes watches Fox, too. The walls are covered in an eclectic range of art, including Mateo’s Pueblo dancer paintings, cartoon paintings, prints of Cara’s photography, and on one wall, sketches of political figures, including multiple images of Trump with his mouth open. “I used to do a Trump a day, but I ran out of paper,” he laughs.
The high points of Romero’s year—being named a Living Treasure and attending Comic-Con—have also been accompanied by grief. His mother passed away recently, which has prompted him to reflect on mortality and the strong lineage of women artists he comes from. While his mother was not an artist, she often crafted with Diego and Mateo. When it came to his own art, however, he says, “I really looked to both grandmas.” Although he did not learn to make pots from his grandmother—renowned Cochiti potter Teresita Romero—her work and instincts are a kind of “blood memory.” His maternal grandmother, Grandma Guth, illustrated croquis for the New York Times during the Depression. Romero has also learned a lot from women artists, including his teacher at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Otellie Loloma, who recognized and encouraged his talent for working with clay. These days, he finds inspiration from his wife, Cara Romero—a rising star in photography.
He says he is especially drawn to the work of women because it’s usually superior. “The whole field of art is so dominated with men,” he says. “If a woman makes it in art, she’s gotta be better than her male counterparts. So it’s going to be more interesting.”
Romero also credits his teacher Adrian Saxe from his graduate days at the University of California at Los Angeles. When he arrived at UCLA making Pueblo-inspired pots, Saxe pushed him to include narrative. This transformed his art. Still, Romero almost didn’t graduate, and his relationship with Saxe was not easy. Romero drank heavily in those days—and for many years afterwards when he returned to New Mexico. It took moving to Oklahoma for a time to get sober. “I had to get out, I just had to,” he says. “[If I hadn’t,] I would be dead by now and I would never have quit drinking.”
Thankfully, his relationship with Saxe has since been repaired. “I apologized to him AA-style,” Romero recalls, “and I said, ‘If it hadn’t been for you, I would never have pursued the direction I did, which set me apart from all the other Pueblo potters when I got back.’”
Some relationships were not as easy to repair. Romero acknowledges that his relationship with his two oldest kids is fraught because they grew up during his drinking years. “I can’t blame them for that,” he says. “I made that bed.”
Chavarria met Romero at Second Street Brewery in the early nineties. Their shared past experiences and love for comics makes their curator-artist relationship unique. “His early pieces were so personal and came out of him addressing his problems either in relationships or just conflicts or tragedies and major life events,” Chavarria says. Upon reviewing images of the art that will be in the upcoming show, Romero was delighted to encounter old work. One pot features a comic with his signature characters, the Chongo Brothers. The Chongo Brothers are loosely based on Diego and Mateo and are identifiable by their diamond eyes and the low bun hairstyle (the chongo) common to the Pueblos. In this particular pot, the Chongo Brothers are seated in a car. The trickster, Coyote, is seated in the passenger seat and in a cartoon bubble above his head he is saying, “I’m trying to help you Chungos, Indian Bingo is the way to go!” Coyote’s words are a nod to casinos, and the Chongo Brothers are, as usual, engaged in the process of self-sabotage.
As he studies his old pot, Romero laughs as he sees that Coyote is holding an open bottle of beer, amused by the details his younger self thought to include. These days, Romero’s work is more likely to address the issues and politics of our time. Chavarria says, “Diego now has the stability that lets him focus on issues he sees are really important, like climate change.”
Romero works slowly and makes roughly twelve to twenty pots a year. “I remember when I was nineteen at IAIA and I said I wanted to be an artist’s artist. Money was never the goal,” he says. “Thank goodness, because I don’t make a lot of it.” He laughs, and admits he spends any extra money on comic books. “All along, my object was to make art that would resonate with people and transcend the ages.”
The question Romero’s solo show poses remains: Will Diego Romero triumph over the end of art?
Perhaps it’s a trick question. As Chavarria points out, Pueblo languages don’t have a word for art. Art is so deeply embedded in everyday life that it’s not seen as a separate entity. “Diego triumphs because he makes the End of Art realize that there is no end, because it never really began,” Chavarria says.
For his part, Romero knows The Walking Dead’s happy conclusion is a kind of fantasy. “We think we’re so far from the ancients and we’re so superior,” Romero says. “But really, we’ve changed very little as far as the basic human need to interpret and document our environment.”
Making art to interpret life fulfills another basic human need: connection. Romero plans to continue lurking in galleries to watch reactions to his work.
“When people respond to my art, we’ve connected,” Romero says. “They understand the observation I made because the language is universal.”
Indeed, the humor lies in the absurdity of how predictable we are.
Emily Withnall was born and raised in New Mexico, and now works as a freelance writer and editor in Missoula, Montana. Her work can be read at emilywithnall.com.