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Telling a larger story: Artist combines pop icons with Rez scenes

SANTA FE, N.M. — Ryan Singer has always been inspired by the symbols from his childhood.

The Albuquerque artist is known for pop culture symbols in his paintings, including sci-fi characters he grew up watching in movies like “Star Wars,” horror characters, popular music groups, and toys he played with growing up. As a kid living on Navajo reservations, Singer said he always had a really “powerful” imagination and could picture all sorts of scenes among the landscapes in which he was playing.

Though his childhood influences have remained in his work, the now 45-year-old artist said his artwork has evolved with him. As he’s gotten older, he’s realized the importance of giving back to his community and spreading meaningful messages about the indigenous experience.

“As a kid learning how to draw, scribbling, drawing, getting better throughout my teens, watching all those movies, living life as a Native American experiencing racism firsthand, understanding history, relearning all these different things, and then going through the process, it just morphed into these paintings,” Singer said in a recent interview.

“I’m still learning where I’m going. I’m kind of in the middle of the evolution process right now. So, I guess I’ll keep evolving as I learn more and get better at painting.”

A solo show that fuses Singer’s memories of growing up on reservations with the pop culture symbols from his upbringing, “Childhood Mythologies” opens at Santa Fe’s form & concept on Friday. It will feature all new work made within the past few months.

This is the artist’s first solo show since 2002. Singer, who has lived in New Mexico for the past 11 years, but grew up mostly around Tuba City, Ariz., normally shows his work in group shows and art markets. Last year, he won first place in Acrylic Painting at the Santa Fe Indian Market for his painting “Inter-Dimensional Gambling,” which shows “Star Wars” characters playing cards with people from the Navajo Nation.

“The paintings I do, they usually take a while to knock out,” he said. “So, doing 15 paintings for this solo exhibition is a lot of paintings at once for me.”

Though Singer doesn’t make comics, form & concept director Jordan Eddy said his “wild, zany” paintings with pop culture references, saturated colors and a graphic line art style feel like large comic book strips that can be pieced together to create one cohesive story. He said standing next to the large paintings feels like walking into a comic book.

“There was just something really interesting about the way he was taking these really pervasive pop culture touchpoints and weaving them into his own memories of the Navajo Nation where he grew up.”

In one of Singer’s larger pieces, “Sand People Sand Painting,” he paints two of the well-known creatures from the “Star Wars” planet of Tatooine in a hogan, the traditional Navajo dwelling. The characters are creating sand painting – a traditional Navajo art form – of R2D2.

Throughout the scene, both Navajo and “Star Wars” imagery is present. There is a woven tapestry on the wall of the hogan, but the weaving depicts a Bantha, the large creature ridden by the Sand People. “It’s kind of like blended together,” he said of the symbols. “They’re kind of like in their own dimension.”

He also tapped into his memories of old video games for some of the works. In “8-Bit Rug,” a Navajo woman sits in front of her loom weaving a rug with a triangle of cubes identical to the one in the ’80s video game “Qbert.”

In the cubism-esque “Binary Worlds,” an arcade game is placed into the middle of the desert landscape with a Navajo woman standing in front of it. He described that painting as symbolizing “two dimensions” overlapping.

In each piece he does, Singer says he’s trying to tell a larger story. While some images are more lighthearted, like paintings of dinosaurs in a desert landscape, others have deeper meanings that he leaves for the viewer to interpret.

“There’s things I like to say that I think are important for people to think about,” said Singer. “So, the paintings, they’re kind of fun to look at, they’re bright colors, (have) a lot of symbols, a lot of pop culture stuff, and the Navajo culture and indigenous culture mixed together. Then, there’s also these hidden messages that I’d like to convey or like people to think about or get something out of.”

That is evident in other pieces he will be debuting in the show, including one that features Darth Vader chasing down X-wing Starfighters, the rebel alliance fighting the Dark Side, through Canyon de Chelly, where in 1864 Kit Carson destroyed Navajo settlements under what was known as the “scorched earth policy” – which also is the name of Singer’s painting

“If if you understand that whole thing with the history, then (the painting) can dwell into that morbid idea, like ‘Wow, this totally means something else than what I’m looking at,’ ” Singer said.

The familiar symbols, Singer said, allow both Native and non-Native viewers – particularly people around his age – to relate to the paintings. Form & concepts’ Eddy echoed this, saying the nostalgic images can help people dive deeper into the broader messages Singer is trying to send.

“It becomes this bridge into another culture that all of our viewers aren’t going to be familiar with, but to start with the ‘Star ‘Wars’ side of it or the ‘Godzilla’ iconagraphy, and then (viewers can) start to understand the other references in these paintings. It is really important right now to bridge some of these gaps and understanding,” said Eddy. “Particularly in a place like New Mexico where there’s a huge rural divide, economic divide and cultural divide.”