Today’s column is the second in a four-part series about group exhibitions. These reviews illuminate the qualities that make (or break) a group show and the curatorial decisions that successfully frame multiple perspectives under a singular vision.
“Re-new”, the Santa Fe Community Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, highlights the diversity and breath of northern New Mexico art and craft. According to gallery manager Robert Lambert, seventy-eight artists submitted portfolios and additional artists were recommended or discovered. A curatorial committee of four arts professionals who represent local galleries and arts organizations narrowed the selection down to a few dozen, and Lambert made the final choices. During the curatorial process, the committee was sensitive and thoughtful about representing the breath of artistic practice and cultural tradition in northern New Mexico. In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, local Hispanic artists were particularly emphasized; their works are indicated by bright orange tags.
The title of the show, “Re-New”, cleverly refers to the renewal of the convention center itself, as well as the re-visioning of Santa Fe as a regional and international center of art and culture. The premise is optimistic and fun. Only three of the twenty-nine artists, Marie Romero Cash, Julian Romero, and Nancy Hidding Pollock, made works specifically for the show, and the remaining works do reference the theme of renewal in some way (Mateo Romero’s large painting of a military tank, “Fallujah”, is, according to Lambert, “a curatorial stretch”). But the title, “Re-New”, is untenably broad and does little to unify the wide range of works represented here.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t compelling work to look at—there is. James Koehler’s “Harmonic Oscillation XL”, a 40 inch square monochromatic blue weaving made with hand-dyed wool is quiet and meditative. If a work of art can actually educe tenderness, compassion and peace in a viewer, this work succeeds. Koehler’s compositional structure references the works of Bauhaus painter and color theorist Johannes Itten. Three squares nest inside each other, evenly spaced. Unlike Itten’s paintings, though, the two inner squares are nearly obscured by soft rippling forms that shift in value so subtly that the viewer can not locate where the shifts begin and end—quite a feat, particularly in a hand-made textile. The work is based on a famous Zen koan, A Woman Comes Out of Absorption, in which an enlightened being, Manjushri, unsuccessfully attempts to bring a woman out of meditative absorption. Instead of illustrating the scene, Koehler creates a work that elicits the meditative experience in the viewer. The inclusion of Koehler’s work recognizes Santa Fe as a center for spiritual and contemplative practice. It also exemplifies the local art community’s appreciation for reductive and minimalist art.
Artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, Marsden Hartley, and Paul Strand brought modernism to New Mexico from New York, and their lasting influence is represented here as well. Siddiq Khan’s mixed media painting, “Lineage Series 4” is a series of large, abstract forms emerging from painterly marks. Chip Dunahugh, who moved to Santa Fe from the east coast himself just a few years ago, owes much to 1940’s geometric abstraction in his painting, “ A Little Jig Number 7”.
Nancy Hiding Pollock
The works that diverge from American modernism to form hybridizations with other traditions, or with contemporary perspectives and subjects, are some of the most intriguing works in the show. Nancy Hidding Pollock combines expressionist painting, the Southwest landscape, local history, and scientific/mathematical equations inspired by Los Alamos in her mixed media work on metal, “History 1”. The merging of these elements visually represents the eclectic mix of culture, history, science and nature that defines New Mexico. In fact, a tourist in Santa Fe who visits the exhibition, and who wants to learn about what made the city so unique, should start with Pollock’s work.
Two represented modes of creative practice illustrate Santa Fe’s extreme artistic breath: traditional arts, particularly those that exemplify New Mexico’s Hispanic history, and works that prove Santa Fe’s deepening connection with the international, contemporary art world.
Ruben Gonzalez’s wooden doors, made from antique wood he found in Illinois, are a gorgeous example of the tenderness with which local craftsmen and women link the past to the future and preserve the skills New Mexicans deeply value. Miquel Chavez’s talent is represented by a traditional tin mirror frame and carved banco. (Chavez will demonstrate traditional wood carving techniques in the gallery tomorrow, Saturday, November 1, from noon to 4:00 pm, admission free). Julian Romero’s work, created specifically for this exhibition, is a relief wood carving of a skeleton being brought to life by God’s touch. Also included are Marion Martinez’s “mixed tech media” sculptures, made from discarded circuit boards, inspired by her Hispanic and Native American roots and her childhood in Los Alamos.
Carol Coates’ towering work, “Dialogue”, a wavy sculptural box on the wall, rising 144 inches, contains images of peachy bodies transferred onto layered scrims of canvas and mesh. Her impressive work, along with an altered book, “Hopi Maiden”, by Joy Campbell, and a video, “Despertar (Awakening)” by Armando Espinosa, represent contemporary artistic practices that honor culture and history. Espinosa and his partner, Craig Johnson, have recently completed a collaborative project with a village in southern Oaxaca, Teotitlán del Valle. The artists call their work “fair trade art and anthropology” and their primary purpose is cultural understanding. Espinoza and Johnson were visiting artists at the Santa Fe Art Institute last summer, and their inclusion in this show illustrates the collaborative possibilities between the city and the region’s private arts organizations.
The purpose of a community gallery is to celebrate local talent, and the Santa Fe Arts Commission, with Lambert’s leadership, is off to a good start. But while local visitors to the gallery will recognize artists’ names and New Mexico’s cultural traditions, visitors from outside New Mexico might not. The lack of informational text for this exhibition is intentional; Lambert wants to leave interpretations open. While his desire to avoid didactic discourse is understandable, contextual information will only enrich and sharpen how regional art is experienced and understood by tourists. Without information, visitors will leave the gallery with a mental snapshot of New Mexican art divorced from its multiple contexts—and context is the heart of any story.
“Re-New” at the Santa Fe Community Gallery
through December 12
201 W. Marcy, (at the intersection of Marcy and Sheridan), Santa Fe
This review was originally published in the October 31, 2008 issue of the Journal Santa Fe, in the column Object Lessons.