Tony Abeyta, a renowned painter and multimedia artist, may live in Berkeley, Calif. But as he prepares for a trip to The Venice Biennale, a tradition for him and his family, he ventures to call the European city a bit like home.
For Abeyta, who grew up in Santa Fe and on the Navajo Nation of New Mexico, many points across the globe have taken on that aura, where home is a litany of places lending the artist influence and genuine curiosity. His homes have contributed to an understanding of the dichotomy of life and to fearless composition of a growing legacy.
As the Museum of Northern Arizona’s featured Gala artist, Tony Abeyta’s retrospective, “Convergence,” will speak of home and journeys. It opens Sunday, June 18 with a gallery talk at noon. See MusNAZ.org for details.
For the first time, Abeyta will be seeing works representing the last decade of his career. He calls “Convergence” a sort of returning point in a creative cycle that has brought him into multimedia spanning painting, sculpture and jewelry.
After all, he is carrying on a tradition while fueling his own legacy.
Abeyta learned from his parents. His father, himself a painter, always kept art supplies in the house and encouraged the children to use them. Abeyta embraced his father’s use of color, of composition.
His mother, too, as a ceramicist, taught her children to build with clay — a practice his sister picked up on while his brother dove into woodworking.
“It’s just a continuing legacy and even more so when I look at my kids,” Abeyta said of his son, who is a musician and filmmaker, and daughter, who works in installation art and sculpture. “Where I kind of left off, the kids pick up. That’s what I mean by legacy. That’s sort of the arc between what my parents were doing and what my kids are doing.”
Abeyta’s corpus, bathed in brilliant hues and dynamism, contains a narrative that speaks to monumental milestones, traditional Navajo imagery, and abstractions — each presented with a contemporary flair. He explained he views all art through a comprehensive aperture: globally, historically, regionally and culturally.
“When I look at my own work, I look at how it fits into whatever genre, which is culturally based in the contemporary American Indian art movement,” he added of a coterie of Indigenous people creating from similar sources. “I’ve always thought it is an extremely important facet to world art that we represent art authentically. We’re Indigenous, a rare breed, we’re a small minority in the larger spectrum of art, so being part of that legacy is really important to me.”
The body of work represented in “Convergence” displays modernist landscapes, abstractions and traditional imagery in Abeyta’s favored large-format alongside some of his sculptural work and even a few of his father’s smaller paintings.
“We have similarities and we’re different animals as well,” he said. “My father’s work tends to be smaller scale … Mine is more physical, built, large-scale with copper and sand. Just the process itself is completely different.”
He employs sand and not only copper tones but the material itself. Abeyta explained this process grew from his early days as a burgeoning artist around the time he attended the Institute of Native American Art in Santa Fe. Back then, he said, he added sand and even motor oil to paints just to stretch the medium.
He now works with very refined media, but Abeyta noted, “Those ended up being some of the major traits of how I work today, of creating textures and physical substance to the work.”
Place, too, is a contributor. Studying sculpture in the South of France and in Italy helped the artist hone his woodworking skills and penchant for building. Eschewing confining frames, copper came into his work as a means to extend the visual lines of the painting.
And seeing these 30 works together, the artist has been able to connect the threads of how his style has evolved, and how certain themes inspired other series. For instance, the floral works, he said, represent passionate relationships and subsequent loss.
“But they stand alone as their own unique expression because they’re dealing with something very specific like relationships,” he added.
Looking into these works of the past, Abeyta feels himself heading on an upward trajectory. He’s recently accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s exhibiting less, but applying his vast knowledge in collaboration and pushing his work to new limits in video and figurative representations — wherever he goes across the globe.
As he advances in these new directions, he added, “Wherever the muse beckons me to be, I’ll go there.”