Fonseca is best-known for his depiction of Coyote, the colourful trickster who leaves the “res” (reservation) and re-appears in a variety of non-traditional settings. The Art of Harry Fonseca focuses on Coyote’s role as an avatar for the artist and a metaphor for exploring his creative, artistic, and ethnic identity within the context of the contemporary world. As a gay man and a person of mixed heritage, Fonseca used his art as a vehicle for self-discovery—a means of navigating different aspects of his life and identity during a time when ideas about Native peoples were often driven by outside forces, including commercial markets, tourism, and historical clichés.
The exhibition is organized into four sections. A brief introduction gives an overview of the artist, as does Fonseca and the Self, which speaks to the role of art in exploring both personal identity and experience. The third and major section, Coyote Leaves the Res, takes an extended look at some of the many roles that Coyote embraces, and his ability to defy boundaries and defy expectations. Via Coyote, Fonseca also explored his own artistic interests, which included modernism and European artists such as Henri Matisse.
The fourth section, St. Francis and the Fantastic, explores other figures that Fonseca gravitated toward, such as St. Francis, the mythological Icarus, and Ishi, the last member of the Yahi tribe, each of whom defied expectations to cross from one world into another. Through the figure of St. Francis, Fonseca explored his thoughts on the devastating impact of the mission system (established by Franciscan priests in the late eighteenth century) on California’s Native population. This section includes many pieces from his Discovery of Gold and Souls in California series, which was born out of an early 1990s trip to Sacramento to research the history of the Maidu peoples. The series examines the physical, emotional, and spiritual devastation wrought by the combined forces of Christianity, empire, and greed over two centuries of California history. Shown against alternating backgrounds of black and gold, these paintings feature crosses obscured with red paint, a reference to Native blood spilled in the quest for God and gold.