Emmi Whitehorse’s lyrical abstracts reimagine nature
NEW YORK — Emmi Whitehorse’s work is hard to categorize. It is lyrical yet abstract, and, in keeping with her Navajo Dine heritage, it evokes the same sense of balance and harmony found in nature that inspires these artworks.
For Whitehorse (b. 1957-), this is clearly a deliberate choice. When she was small and her elders were teaching her the art of weaving textiles, she first had to gather local plants that were used to create natural dyes. These early adventures led her to incorporate images of plant forms in her art. The abstract quality of her work could lead viewers to see it as suggestive of landscapes or surreal dreamscapes. She has said that her paintings aim to tell the story of knowing land across time. One of the most important Navajo words is “hozho,” a Dine concept that refers to a state of being in harmonious balance and peace with the surrounding world. Whitehorse’s paintings certainly are in tune with this concept.
A poetic Whitehorse piece steeped in nature and seeming to evoke a meditative state is Field of Birds, a 1992 mixed media work on paper laid on canvas, which achieved $30,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2023 at Ahlers & Ogletree Auction Gallery. The composition in this painting reflects the influence her grandmother, a weaver, had on her. When young Whitehorse watched her grandmother weave detailed patterns into blankets, she began to notice and appreciate the spaces hidden among flat surfaces, which she now takes full advantage of as she composes her paintings.
The market for works by indigenous artists has been growing in recent years, especially for women indigenous artists, and Whitehorse’s works have benefitted. They typically command sums ranging from a few thousand dollars to $30,000, depending on the medium and size. Field of Birds, for example, is massive, measuring 51¼ by 78in. Also, in contrast to other currently active Native American contemporary artists, Whitehorse has said she has consciously avoided creating any politically oriented art; a 2015 piece that opposed fracking on Navajo lands is a notable exception.
In pieces such as Green Wood, a 1996 oil on paper that brought $22,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2022 at Hindman, Whitehorse makes full use of the space. Certain darker elements immediately catch the eye but as the viewer dwells on the painting, other motifs and marks come to the foreground. They were never hidden, but they take their time in revealing themselves.
The Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M., which acts as a hometown gallery for Whitehorse, notes on its website that her abstract canvases hold a layering of lines, marks and shapes interspersed in patches of soft colors. “Not purely abstract, her paintings suggest landscapes with firmaments, the lines between them softly blurred,” the gallery said.
Using a similar color palette as the aforementioned Green Wood is Iron Weed, a 2008 oil and chalk on paper that sold for $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2020 at Cowan’s Auctions. The difference in the content between the two artworks, however, is as distinct as night and day. The former mostly features naturalistic flowers, while the latter is nearly filled with a variety of circles, scribbles and nondescript marks.
Examining Whitehorse’s paintings is almost like trying to decipher a secret code. Drawing is at the heart of her painting practice. Unlike some artists who use pencil studies to help delineate a painting, her mark-making is still visible in the final painting. These marks peek out under swaths of color as in Crown of White, a 1992 mixed media artwork that realized $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022 at Larsen Art Auction. Seemingly random characters such as an “8” or an upside down “e” in her paintings challenge the viewer to ponder what the artist’s intent might be.
In her artist’s statement, Whitehouse declares that her art has always been about land and paying attention to one’s surroundings. Through her art, she hopes to motivate audiences to take heed of the natural beauty in the world. “The calm and beauty that is in my work I hope serves as a reminder of what is underfoot, of the exchange we make with nature,” she said.
An ocean-like Whitehorse pastel on paper, Untitled (Dark Blue), which earned $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021 at Santa Fe Art Auction, is clearly influenced by her interest in the natural world. The highly textural painting evokes mystery yet defines this particular place, wherever it is.
The typically soft nature and coloring of her artworks belie the physicality of her process. She reportedly uses her hands to blend the dry color washes and soften the tones, while her drawing technique itself highlights possible contradictions. The marks can be appreciated up close, but when viewed together, the distance between the marks is evocative of sweeping plains and topography and the way large swaths of land are broken up by a stray tree or plant.
Through her labor-intensive, carefully conceived works full of color and detail, Emmi Whitehorse reminds viewers of their shared relationship with the land.