FIRED BY TEMPERATURES of more than 2,000 degrees, a warrior emerges from a monolithic portal adorned with Indigenous symbols. A blood-red bust faces the courtyard of the Inn and Spa at Loretto, staring at visitors to O’Gah Po’Geh (Santa Fe), the Tewa people’s ancestral territory. The warrior’s triumph occurred in 1680, but he’s a futuristic-looking relic, resembling a battle-ready hero of science fiction. Armed with a forceful gaze and resolute expression, he’s perpetually poised to realize his vision.
Foreseer is a nearly eight-foot-tall representation of Po’pay, the Tewa man who led the 1680 Pueblo Revolt to expel Spanish colonists from the region. Behind him, bordering the hotel’s circular driveway, are three forbidding figures that look improbably immortal, like freshly excavated time travelers from a century ahead of us. They are The Revolt Runners, created in memory of the messengers dispatched by Po’pay to alert each pueblo of the planned uprising.
“Clay is way bigger than all of us,” Virgil Ortiz, creator of Foreseer and The Revolt Runners, says of the material that has formed the nucleus of his creative expression since he was a teenage wunderkind taking top honors at Santa Fe Indian Market.
Installed in July 2021, the Santa Fe pieces—created in collaboration with metalsmiths Dan and Foster Romano—were the Cochiti Pueblo artist’s first large-scale outdoor works. Someday, perhaps, the pieces may be seen as the culmination of Ortiz’s crusade to educate the world about what he calls “the first American Revolution.” Or, based on the 53-year-old ceramicist, fashion designer, jeweler, video artist, and all-around visionary’s summer of honors, exhibitions, and enterprises for his Indigenous Futurist series, 1680/2180, they could be just the beginning.
The sculptures kicked off an extra flurry of activity for the dazzlingly prolific artist. In the fall, Museum of New Mexico Press published his mid-career monograph, Virgil Ortiz: ReVOlution. Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is honoring Ortiz with its 2022 Living Treasure award for contributions to Indigenous art and culture. The celebration includes ReVOlution, an exhibition opening May 1, and recognition at the Native Treasures Art Market, held in Santa Fe over Memorial Day weekend. All this comes after Ortiz returns from overseeing the presentation of his work in the Triennale Milano, in Italy.
His summer lineup in Santa Fe continues with the early August opening of Tradition and Innovation: 100 Years of Santa Fe’s Indian Market 1922–2022 at the New Mexico History Museum, where Ortiz curated an original installation and consulted on the scope and content of the exhibition. His work extends to envisioning the future of Indian Market and what it could look like.
Finally, for the late August grand opening of the Vladem Contemporary art museum in Santa Fe’s Rail-yard District, Ortiz will unveil five of his largest contemporary artworks to date. True to the artist’s maximalist, multimedia spirit, he also plans to wow visitors with a video installation at the Vladem, bringing to life his brand-new 1680/2180 Recon Watchmen characters. (Editor's note: Since this story was published, construction delays have pushed back the opening of Vladem Contemporary. A new date will be announced when construction is complete in late winter.)
“The whole point of what you see unfolding throughout the summer,” Ortiz says, “is to never stop creating”—which might well be his credo.
TO HEAR HIM TELL IT, Ortiz is a mere conduit for the centuries of ancestral clay knowledge that flow through his fingers. At the feet of his grandmother Laurencita Herrera and his mother, Seferina Ortiz, both acclaimed Pueblo potters, he learned to dig for clay and coil it by hand on their traditional land south of Santa Fe, where the oldest village abuts the Río Grande. As a teen, his love of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica led him to create ever more fanciful, intergalactic figures.
He thought his practice was nontraditional until he learned about Cochiti Pueblo’s “monos.” The playful clay pieces, created in the late 1800s into the early 1900s, depicted tourists and visitors to the region, such as traveling performers and salesmen. The expressionistic, tongue-in-cheek mini effigies served as insular social commentary on outsiders but were sold as souvenirs.
When a collector showed them to 15-year-old Ortiz for the first time, they bore an unmistakable resemblance to the increasingly wild figures that were emerging from the young artist’s imagination. “I’m reviving how it’s all tied together,” he says. “Some people say I’m an innovator, but that gives me a chance to show them pieces from the 1800s.”
Read More: Cara Romero’s photographs of tribal communities challenge viewers to rethink the history—and future—of Native photography.
As his profile rose in the late 1990s, Ortiz taught himself to make larger and more dominant figures and vessels that pushed the boundaries of traditional Native ceramics. Eroticism, homoeroticism, bondage, and other envelope-pushing themes made their way into his art. Exhibitions expanded to include photos of androgynous club kids dressed up S&M-style, which in turn informed the clay works. The now-grown-up sci-fi nerd also continued making historical mono figures, including circus personalities like tattooed men and Siamese twins.
In 2002, fashion designer Donna Karan called on him at Indian Market, requesting prints for her upcoming clothing line based on Pop Art. A year later, Ortiz began creating his own multiple fashion lines, including Rezzurect, Indigene, and Virgil Ortiz Couture. His Made in Native America brand, begun in 2009, sells scarves, handbags, leather cuffs, and wallets.
Karen Kramer, curator of Native American art at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts, says Ortiz’s fashion work transcends “the simplistic notion that Native design must be utilitarian or representational” to show the contemporary side of Indigenous life.
The Pueblo Revolt hummed along in Ortiz’s cultural memory for most of his life, but it began to emerge as a major narrative in his art nearly 20 years ago. Dressing friends in outlandish designs and posing them in postapocalyptic-seeming but also iconic New Mexico landscapes such as White Sands, he seized on a new way to tell the rebellion story via photography and video. His fierce, cyberpunked-out warriors could also extend their stories into the future, thereby spotlighting a timeless Indigeneity that honors Native histories, traditions, and survival.
An ever-evolving set of new, superhero-style Pueblo Revolt characters, sometimes armed with gas masks and futuristic weapons, made their way onto Ortiz’s clay surfaces. They include the Blind Archers and Runners, identified by Keres and other Ancestral Puebloan names, and a leader called Tahu, always depicted with a rose in her mouth, who stands for the potent matrilineal influence in Pueblo culture. A character named Translator weaves together stories from the past and future as narrator, while a group called the Venutian Soldiers represents the destruction wrought on future pueblos by future colonialists, climate change, and nuclear weapons.
Ortiz says of his 1680/2180 narratives, “Some of it is made up, as seen through my eyes, but that’s the futuristic part. But it’s really exposing the truth of what’s been swept under the carpet: genocide, murders, bloodshed, men and women getting their feet cut off, public hangings and whippings.” These violent episodes reference the retribution visited upon Pueblo people when the Spanish military reconquered O’Gah Po’Geh in 1692. “Nobody talks about that, and why not? That’s our history. It’s real.”
Read More: Author Charles S. King places Virgil Ortiz's creativity in the context of his Cochiti Pueblo artistic lineage.
He began to tell stories with imagery on vessels and clothing and in graphic novels, via live-action video and photos of models in body paint and costumes that are then digitized and repurposed. The science fiction influence is wholly intentional, directed at capturing the imaginations of Indigenous kids who might not know about the Pueblo Revolt but who see every Marvel movie.
“He came up with something so profound, conceptually and artistically,” Charles King, Ortiz’s longtime gallerist and author of Virgil Ortiz: ReVOlution, says of 1680/2180. “It took me time to grasp what was going on, and that’s okay. I think one day we’re going to look back and he’s going to be one of those ‘genesis people,’ where you see everything change beginning with him.”
For now, Ortiz is one of the most prominent artists aligned with the movement called Indigenous Futurism, which arose in the early aughts. “There are multiple artists working in that genre,” King explains. “I don’t think any of them realized it was a movement at the time. Everybody just used futurism and science fiction as a means of communication.”
ACOMA PUEBLO POET Simon Ortiz wrote, “Warriors will keep alive in the blood.” Accordingly, Virgil Ortiz, who has never sought higher education, is perpetually in fearless pursuit of new mediums and techniques to pump up his warriors’ visibility.
A 2021 residency at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, in Helena, Montana, provided the materials and facilities he needed to further his explorations in high-fire ceramics. Keeping in mind his desire to make larger-scale characters and his commissions at the Inn at Loretto and Hotel Chaco, in Albuquerque, Ortiz used the two months to work 17-hour days in collaboration with ceramicist Justin Paik Reese.
“The traditional work will always be the heart of everything I do. But the Cochiti clay stays at Cochiti,” Ortiz says. “When I do residencies and travel, I have access to all these different kilns, so this was a way to go bigger and play into the whole narrative of 2180.”
Read More: Below the surface, Kathleen Wall’s whimsical art digs into serious issues.
The Archie Bray residency resulted in the five-foot sculptures with flashy, high-fire glazes in a spectrum of colors and LED lights, which will debut at Santa Fe’s new Vladem Contemporary art museum in 2023. Their space-age patinas lend them the appearance of future relics, transported to the past on an educational mission.
“For the world of ceramics, there’s always been this disconnect between the Native art world and the contemporary art world,” King says. “He’s opening the door for another generation of younger artists to explore contemporary ceramics outside of Native materials.”
But Ortiz’s sense of time is clearly more nonlinear, with the past, present, and future blipping in and out of the art he’s created. A conversation with the artist is both circular and serpentine, much like the turkey track, a signature X design element of Ortiz’s that honors the footprint of the wild turkeys near Cochiti Pueblo. The print can confound trackers, who can’t tell whether the animal is coming or going.
“Our people captured a timeline in clay with caricatures of people they’d never seen before,” he says. “There are so many pieces to the puzzle, but once you figure it out, they all fit in unity. Our ancestors were way ahead of us.”
Virgil Ortiz’s Santa Fe Summer
See his work at these venues.
The Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, on Museum Hill, opens ReVOlution, an exhibition in honor of MIAC’s 2022 Living Treasure award, on May 1. It runs through March 2023. A conversation with Virgil Ortiz takes place in the museum’s Kathryn O’Keeffe Theater at 3 p.m. on May 1. The Native Treasures Art Market takes over the Santa Fe Community Convention Center during Memorial Day weekend.
The New Mexico History Museum, on the Plaza, features Tradition and Innovation: 100 Years of Santa Fe’s Indian Market 1922–2022. The exhibition opens August 7 and closes at the end of August 2023.
Vladem Contemporary’s inaugural exhibition, Shadow & Light, includes Leviathan: Plight of the Recon Watchmen. (Date to be announced.)