Emmi Whitehorse

posArtist bio

Essay by Susie Kalil

Scientists argue that we are in a new geologic phase, the Anthropocene epoch—a time when humans now change the Earth more than all the planet's natural processes combined. As Emmi Whitehorse sees it, in keeping with the Navajo creation story, we are presently in the fifth world—the Glittering World—a time of glittering technology and influences from outside the sacred land entrusted to them by the Holy People. Accordingly, she experiences this world as a mingling of the profoundly traditional with the alluringly new.

Whereas the Glittering World was supposed to represent the most advanced state of human evolution, Whitehorse's recent works underscore the concept of transience and fragility, and stand as enticing reminders of the consequences of inaction to the environmental crisis. In her quest to offer us a sense of place, Whitehorse expresses the mythic need for orientation in a boundless universe. Her paintings, which combine oil, pencil and chalk evoke Dinetah, the homeland. They are stimulated by the artist's mystical conjuring of place, her instinctive feel of an untamed land. Drawing upon her life experiences and Navajo heritage, the images tell the story of an intimate knowledge of the Southwest landscape over time. Whitehorse has not only pondered the environment, but has experienced it with all her physical and spiritual being—as a child, she played and tended sheep in the New Mexico land. She has continued to walk it, while making connections between abstract properties of time, distance, speed and perception, in addition to the linking of geographic points. Her ethereal paintings—hot pinks, iridescent blues, mint greens—have a hands-on specificity, yet call up a range of sources, including archaeology, maps, the cosmos, dreams, as well as glyphs and symbols: animal tracks, bursting seed pods, wavy plant tendrils, rustling leaves, concentric rings of water and vertical "portals" or entry points. Their heated glow and scintillating power owe to Whitehorse's ability to summon so many worlds from deep within her own.

For Earth & Sky, she has produced two 8-foot canary yellow panels on which are applied marks, scrawls and forms, as well as sheets of mica that reverberate in a precarious kinetic balance. Here, the translucent material serves as window, mirror, weapon, or tool—perhaps a lifeline of energy, perhaps a conduit of decadent excess. To that end, Whitehorse's incandescent paintings teeter on the brink of the unknowable, at the outer limits of the imagination where the real vaporizes into the infinite.

For Whitehorse, yellow represents a psychological neutral ground that suffuses the environment with both energy and calm. Yellow is pervasive in the New Mexico landscape, from the enchanting, brilliant sun to the vibrant cottonwood trees, chamisa and flowering bushes. Yet of all the primary colors, yellow is the most inconsistent in symbolism according to context and range of hue. Connections between yellow skin and fear of disease account for yellow corresponding to the color of cowardice and quarantine. Yellow is the color of dying leaves and overripe fruit. However, the color has the highest value in Buddhist countries through its link with the saffron robes of monks, which represent humility and separation from a material society. For the Navajo, yellow is one of the four Sacred Colors, rising in the West at dusk.

To engage these paintings is to have our attention shift to the space between our bodies and the variously opaque/translucent surfaces, which range from luminous shimmer to mysteriously warm reflectivity. The luster evokes those motes of dust that dance in the beams of sunlight, which gave us the sense as children that we were actually able to see air. At times, the paintings seemingly spill out of their frames to energize the many points at which vision and the real world cross paths, dovetailing in perceptions that inflect one another's fleeting movements. Whitehorse's responsiveness to nature seems to have intensified in these works—the mica and formal peculiarities give them an otherworldly presence, creating a hypnotic, transcendent, meditative spirit.

posShowings at KHFA

Group exhibition: Slipstream