Follow the Red Road

Mitch Robles

At Red Road Studios, ongoing.

Reviewed by Lorissa Rinehart

Walk around the corner of Mason and Helena in downtown Santa Barbara and you’ll find an unexpected and unassuming red arrow reading simply: “art.” Follow the arrow and you’ll find something even more unexpected: Red Road Studios. Showcasing Native American art from around the United States, Red Road is the only gallery of its kind in Santa Barbara.

The gallery is small — only 20 by 15 feet — and overflowing with art in media ranging from oil painting to abalone jewelry. For those accustomed to airy and spacious galleries where even the softest footstep echoes loudly off half-naked walls, it takes a while to adjust, but it’s worth the effort. The space creates a cozy, comfortable atmosphere allowing for an intimacy that befits the work displayed.

“Native art” is a deceptively simple term that conjures images of weaving and pottery, crafts that are, to be sure, a part of the exhibition at Red Road. However, Mitch Robles, an artist of Chumash decent who is prominently featured at the gallery, proves just how complicated Native art can be. His painting “Heoka” depicts an ancient Anasazi form in a way that is also sophisticatedly abstract. Combining hot blues, oranges, yellows, and pinks, the piece seems backlit by a raging bonfire. Robles’s brilliance shines in quasi-impressionistic pieces such as “Sitting Bull,” “Ceremonial War Shirt,” and especially “One Nation.” This last painting is particularly successful in complicating and redefining common themes within Native art. “One Nation” depicts in profile what appears to be an archetypal Native American warrior, but the figure is anything but cookie-cutter. With a palette of turquoise, deep reds, muted browns, purple, and black, it is painted in a style that could have been inspired by Matisse.

Other artists on display at Red Road include Rosemary Lopez, a local Chumash woman and material culture artist, and Richard Hansen, whose utilitarian porcelain bowls are beautiful enough to be fine art. In addition, Aleqwel Mendoza, the director of Red Road Studio, uses traditional Chumash tools to fashion exquisite abalone jewelry.

When asked what his vision for the gallery was, Mendoza replied, “I want to create a space that can be a site for trading with other indigenous nations and a place where people can learn about and just enjoy Native art.”

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