Artist Harry Fonseca‘s work may look familiar—even if viewers have never seen it before. There’s an element of recent nostalgia underlining his work; a late 20th century charm that straddles traditional folk, pop and contemporary native art styles. His playful yet meticulous use of bright colors and bold patterns permeate the new show at LA‘s Autry Museum. Called Coyote Leaves the Res: The Art of Harry Fonseca, the exhibition is drawn from the museum’s acquisition of over 900 works by Fonseca. The show is a survey of sorts, one that traces the artist’s beginnings in sketched portraits through the evolution of his coyote motif to his exploration of, and commentary on, California‘s history. The works are shown chronologically, by the artist’s stylistic movements, all set in an open space that features touches of Fonseca’s playful geometry.
Fonseca (who passed away in 2006) was of Portuguese, Hawaiian and Nisenan Maidu—one of California’s native groups—descent and his work reflect his heritage. Most often, this is through the inclusion of coyotes, a trickster and transformational figure in native cultures.
The coyote serves as a kind of personal avatar for Fonseca: the character starts off on all fours, leaving “the res” (aka reservation) before walking upright, into the city, where he eventually comes out as gay, dons leather jackets, goes to dances, and plays slot machines.
The exhibition also features paintings of Coyote with Rose—a flamboyant female coyote friend—along with depictions drawn of “Cowboys and Indians” tropes, as well as St Francis, a Christian figure the artist used as a way to critique and amplify the devastation caused by the mission system on native Californians.
Coyote Leaves the Res represents a piece of California and art history that’s concurrently joyful and bleak, personal and political. All the playful moments have a gravitas. This blurred but beautiful line leaves visitors with a visual biography of a beloved artist tying his past to the present.
Coyote Leaves the Res is on at Autry Museum of the West now through 5 January, 2020.