courtesy of the Tom Golden Collection, Sonoma County Museum
“Mein Kölner Dom, Wrapped” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Most artists have a specific medium, a way of rendering the world around them to be something more than what's already there. Whether it's painting, drawing, collage or something else, most artists are lucky to master one aesthetic. Bulgarian artist Christo, on the other hand, is a master of invention.
An artist in every sense of the word, Christo (and his late wife Jeanne-Claude) started with ideas, put them on sketches, collages and diagrams, then made these flat images into three dimensional installations that took over large plots of land. One need only see photos of Little Bay on the Australian coast with its cliffside entirely covered in fabric to grasp the magnitude of their work.
Christo answering questions
But the process is the interesting part, which is what Christo highlighted in a lecture at the Albuquerque Museum (2000 Mountain NW) on Friday, Aug. 22. Addressing a packed house, Christo detailed the many ideas that prompted his most famous works. He also discussed projects still in the making, including “The Mastaba,” a vast trapezoidal structure made up of oil barrels. If completed, it will stand near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Why are such projects still not completed? As Christo explained, “The difficult part is getting permission. Everywhere in the world belongs to somebody.”
What's impressive about these artworks is the time and planning that go into bringing them to fruition. Years are spent diagramming, speaking with engineers, getting permission from the people in power, and each detail is documented so as to make the outcome not only a structure for visible consumption, but a collaborative piece that invites viewers to become a part of it.
Then there’s the money side. Christo pointed out that for “The Gates” in Central Park, New York, they had to pay the city $3 million for three months of planning and building gates hung with saffron fabric in one of New York City's landmarks. That’s why his projects are funded by the ideas themselves, with Christo selling sketches of the structure's plans and earlier artworks to finance the new piece. If that's not ingenuity, I don't know what is.
The lecture provided fans and viewers with a deeper insight into these works. While it may seem arbitrary to see entire islands in Miami's Biscayne Bay surrounded by pink fabric or a mass of blue and yellow umbrellas inhabiting sections of Japan and Southern California, the ideas that prompt these works are not only visionary, but stand as testaments to the power of man to conceive, design and build something great. And hearing Christo talk so humbly about the process was a pleasure and a treat. Not to mention a privilege.
One question contemporary realist painters often get is, “Why not simply take a photograph?” Eric G. Thompson, a self-taught artist who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, answered this familiar assault with brio the other evening at the opening of his show at Matthews Gallery in Santa Fe (669 Canyon Road). He explained that what photographs can’t replicate is the energy contained in a painting. Thompson’s aim—to “capture an emotion in time”—expresses itself in every well-placed brushstroke he applies to the canvas. Even the familiar chalk-white Starbucks cup with its green logo and little brown sleeve in his painting “The Photographer” bristles with personality. Or consider the oversized greenish ceramic mug in “Morning Cup,” crosshatched with points of light. “Objects have spirit,” Thompson said. “An old cup is like a person.”
Thompson likes to call his paintings “visual haikus,” which spurred the Matthews Gallery to display snippets of great American poetry in the exhibit, samples from poets including Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell and Robert Frost.
“Coffee Shop Girl”
A good example is Robert Lowell’s “Epilogue” paired with the painting “Coffee Shop Girl.” Lowell writes: “I hear the noise of my own voice:/ The painter’s vision is not a lens,/ it trembles to caress the light” [emphasis original]. These lines are reflected in the Coffee Shop Girl’s illuminated face—as pale as rice paper.
Later on, the poem continues: “Pray for the grace of accuracy/ Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination/ stealing like the tide across a map/ to his girl solid with yearning.” Though large sunglasses hide her face and her meager mouth is expressionless, the Coffee Shop Girl is ravenous. We see her frayed emotional state in the feathery brushstrokes in the background, the squirming reddish-brown tendrils of her ponytail, and the sparkling clusters of dandelion-like fur attached to the hood of her puffy coat.
“Spring City House”
In a similar way, Robert Frost’s “A Boundless Moment” provides a context for Thompson’s painting “Spring City House.” The first lines of Frost’s poem mirror the quiet loneliness of the house: “He halted in the wind, and—what was that/ Far in the maples, pale, but not a ghost?” The broken teeth of a destroyed fence in the painting's foreground of give the ghost-like house a forlorn feel. The house’s surface is a clear expanse of creamy off-white dimpled with tiny pinpricks. Its eyelike window is dark: No one is home. To the right of the house, there's a hint of promise in the glimpse of a yellow field, tempered by the stillness of an abandoned chair on the porch next to it.
Thompson’s “The Photographer” places us in an anemic yellow light (not the usual harsh florescent shine) of the magazine section of a Barnes & Noble. The Photographer—a strapping bearded guy in a cap and hefty boots—appears mesmerized by a heavy magazine open on his lap. He seems alone in his thoughts. Two other people, turned away from him, are also engrossed in their reading, sampling something very private in a public space.
An Emily Dickinson poem posted next to the painting “Evening Glow” opens: “Ah, Moon—and Star!/ You are very far—/ But were no one/Farther than you—/ Do you think I’d stop/ For a Firmament—/ Or a Cubit—or so?” In “Evening Glow” the branches of trees claw in every direction as the moon recedes into the background of a steel-colored sky. There is a quiet sadness in the warm, flickering light of a cottage window, as the viewer is on the outside looking in … so far away.
“Why not simply take a photograph?” How else to give voice to our common predicament than with oil, egg tempera and watercolor or with the pen and ink of our best American poets? In the end, we are not always lonely, but forever alone.
“Envelope art is a strong tradition in the jails,” says Juli Cobb. “We will have a number of them displayed at the Library. Most students work with ball point pens and the detail and shading is remarkable.”
Where Juli Cobb teaches, the school uniform is orange, the attendance rate is almost perfect, and the atmosphere can be stressful: “There are doors that clang and dogs that come in and sniff things,” she says.
Cobb’s art students are inmates at the Bernalillo Metropolitan Detention Center. They study at the Gordon Bernell Charter School—one of only two full high schools in the US housed in a jail. (The other one is in San Francisco.)
The students have to be creative at developing projects from the get-go. “I can’t bring many things in there that are second nature to an art teacher,” Cobb says. Everything is a potential weapon, including scissors and heavy objects. Even ink is forbidden in order to prevent illicit prison tattoos.
So when they were supposed to design objects for the OFFCenter Community Arts Project’s “Albuquirky Little Houses” Silent Auction, for which artists usually construct diminutive homes out of wood, Cobb was at a loss. She bunted the problem to her class and the resourceful students decided to draw the shapes onto paper and collage together the walls of each house.
Quirky houses decorated by Gordon Bernell students
Home is where I left my heART: Writings and Art for Our Families from Afar, the Gordon Bernell students’ upcoming exhibit at the Special Collections Library (423 Central NE), will put similar creative solutions on display with a collaborative quilt of collages expressing memories of the students' kitchen tables and several collaborative mosaics of mini-masterpiece paintings. In addition, you can scope envelope art, handmade poetry books and more from Cobb’s students and those of colleague and co-exhibit coordinator Andrea Fletcher.
Cobb’s average students are in their early twenties to mid-thirties. “If they have a GED but they don’t have a diploma, they can take classes,” Cobb explains. The students tend to be highly motivated yet extremely unsure of themselves. Unlike some teenage “know-it-alls” in regular high schools, these older students suffer from real problems with self-esteem. And when students come in depressed, “something is going on.” Are they worrying about a court date? Are they missing their children?
However, mostly the students are lighthearted in class. “I’ve got a ton of students now that I care about,” Cobb says. “The classes are so joyful. They love being in school.” See that love and redemption shining through at the opening reception for Home is where I left my heart on Thursday, May 22, from 4 to 6:30pm.
May has arrived, bringing flowers and new exhibits by three budding New Mexico artists at the Harwood Art Center: Ken Frink, Karl Hofmann and KB Jones. Taken together, the trio conveys a rebirth, a springtime ecstasy, a surge of intense emotions or a revelation. If you come to the Harwood Art Center, be prepared to take in something that we don’t hear much about these days—at least not in the news: Hope abounds, and there’s pleasure to be had in “creating moments of order in a sea of chaos.”
“Doña Mariana Belsunse y Salasar,” 18th century, attributed to Pedro José Diaz
For over four centuries, the most powerful people in Spain’s New World—an elite group made up of Creole, indigenous and mixed-race peoples—were as anxious as modern-day celebrities when it came to their social ranking and how they appeared in public. Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898—an exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum (2000 Mountain Road NW)—explores how the upper classes of New Spain wanted others to view and revere them. These privileged aristocrats anchored themselves in displays of material goods and used portrait painting to legitimize their power. Their elaborate portraits were as telling as snapshots of Hollywood stars spontaneously freezing on the red carpet in all of their self-styled finery.
Take Doña Rosa María Salazar y Gabiño, Countess of Monteblanco and Montemar, the Peruvian aristocrat who posed for a painting (attributed to Pedro José Díaz sometime around 1770) in such unsettling ostentation that every inch of her body seems to be sprouting diamonds and pearls. The portrait includes a motley pattern in the upper right-hand corner that represents the combined coat of arms of the countess and her husband—about as subtle as a Prada label.
Brooklyn Museum, gift of Mrs. Carl H. de Silver
“Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape,” circa 1770-96, Agostino Brunias, oil on canvas
Then there’s Doña Mariana Belsunse y Salasar—an ungainly woman depicted by a Peruvian painter (either José Joaquín Bermejo or Pedro José Díaz) in a giant blue shell of priceless fabric. This discerning woman avoided marriage to the man she was promised to (an old fogy pronounced “uglier than an excommunication”) by entering the convent. Later, when the coast was clear, she reentered society and married her original fiancé’s wealthy nephew—the mayor of Lima. She quickly became one with the “in-crowd,” including the countess of Monteblanco and Montemar, who often frequented her salon.
Brooklyn Museum et al
“Inca King,” Peru, probably mid-18th century, oil on canvas
As the catalog for the exhibit—edited by Richard Aste, a curator at the Brooklyn Museum where the show originated—explains, every group in New Spain was out to prove its worthiness in a new world of changing political and racial identities. For example, the Creole elite set out to prove their “limpieza de sangre” (“purity of blood”) in complicated genealogies that illustrated a lack of Jewish or Moorish ancestry. What’s more, as direct descendants of the pre-Hispanic nobility, the Inca elite produced Europeanized portraits of their ancestors in order to put themselves in the right light to gain privileges such as the right to hold office.
The blurring of racial lines in New Spain allowed for a greater conversation about what groups are given the right to wield power and a greater anxiety over how various people distinguished themselves from one another. Agostino Brunias, a painter of Italian origin, captured the complexity of the new social rules in his painting “Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape.” Here we see free gentlewomen of mixed race dressed for a date with leisure—something that never would have gone over in Europe.
Brunias’ smudging of color lines may have been a reaction to casta painting—eighteenth-century paintings created in Mexico and meant as clear visual lessons about the racial caste system in the New World for those in Old Spain. These paintings attempted to delineate a clear hierarchy among different social groups and they depicted people as belonging to one distinct racial category or another. (A knee-jerk reaction to anxiety over the mingling of bloodlines.)
In 1898, the Spanish-American War ended the empire’s rule of Cuba and Puerto Rico—the last Spanish claims in the Americas. But by this time, the conversation about “new world identity” had already been going on for centuries. Who was who? What rank did you belong to? How could you prove it?
Power dresses itself up in many different ways—almost all of them painstakingly deliberate. What comes first, the emperor or the emperor’s clothes? Judging from this exhibit, it's hard to say.
Janire Nájera apparently likes her road trips 19th-century-style. The Spanish photojournalist and curator is taking a cue from Antonio Armijo—who laid the groundwork for successful trade along what's now known as the Old Spanish Trail when he successfully hoofed it from New Mexico to California and back (and managed to make a profit in the process)—with a voyage through northern New Mexico, parts of Utah and Arizona, and into Southern California. For the journey, Nájera's own pack animal of choice is an RV from 1984, a bit of an upgrade from the 100 mules of Armijo's trip in 1829-1830. Her goals are social and artistic in nature as she explores, according to the description on her website, how “the traditions of the first settlers [of European descent] ... have merged with domestic cultures, influencing the creation and identity of today's pueblos and modern cities.”
Nájera's journey began in Santa Fe on March 10, and she's already building a fascinating portrait of modern-day descendants of our region's Spanish heritage. See Nájera's video below featuring Julia Gómez talking about the famous Colcha stitch, and her latest blog entry has another great one with Santa Fe hairdresser Faustino Herrera de Vargas, entirely in Spanish, speaking about his storied life.
Julia Gómez at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art on the Colcha stitch
Follow Janire Nájera's travels along the Old Spanish Trail at her blog Looking Forward, Moving Back, and keep a weather eye out for the book and photography exhibit that will be the eventual result.
Upcycle your denim at Hip Stitch with the Albuquerque Modern Quilt Guild
Saturday, March 15, is a big day around these parts, and the question on everyone’s mind is: Who will reign supreme when vicious rivals the Heritage Farm Quilters and the Albuquerque Modern Quilt Guild—armed with titanium shears and topstitch needles—clash in their upcoming battle to the death?
Okay, that’s not really a question on anyone’s mind because this is not West Side Story. Though highly skilled with sharp objects, quilters tend to be remarkably nice people. Besides, they’ve got their territories pretty well sorted out by this point.
But I’m not kidding about Saturday. Depending on who you ask, March 15 is either National Quilting Day or Worldwide Quilting Day—in either case, folks will be gathering to celebrate a longstanding art that, much like knitting, soap making and moustache waxing, has experienced a resurgence of popular interest in recent years.
At Hip Stitch (7001 San Antonio NE, near Louisiana), members of the Albuquerque Modern Quilt Guild are ready to put the power of piecing into the hands of the people with free one-hour demos covering two useful skills. At 10am, Linda Hamlin demonstrates the “slice and insert” technique, essential for creating quilts in the easier-than-it-seems “Paper Shredder” pattern. And at 11:30am, Lois Warwick gets fancypants with a demo of a sweet quilt called “Forever in Blue Jeans” that features jeans upcycling, or can be made with a layer cake (collection of 10”x10” squares of fabric) or four charm packs (collections of 5”x5” squares). (Is it just me, or do quilters have the best jargon?) Possibly due to territorial disputes, space is limited; call the store at 821-2739, or visit hipstitchabq.com to reserve your spot.
If your tastes run to the more traditional branches of quilting, the Heritage Farm Quilters are displaying their favorite cozy works of art at the Botanic Garden's Showroom and Heritage Farm (at the Biopark, 2601 Central NW) from 10am to 2pm. This group of adept stitchers has been congregating for more than six years at the Heritage House, sharing their secrets and bringing a timeless art to new generations of gang members quilters.
And if it so happens that a single day of quilting glorification isn't enough, be sure to stop by your local library to scope some of the breathtaking works on display throughout the month of March. The New Mexico Quilters’ Association has quilted gems on display at these ABC branches: Cherry Hills (6901 Barstow NE), Lomas Tramway (908 Eastridge NE), Main (501 Copper NW), Special Collections (423 Central NE), Taylor Ranch (5700 Bogart NW) and Tony Hillerman (8205 Apache NE).
Some people just don't know when to quilt—but clearly, there's a thriving community in Albuquerque just waiting to help them with that very problem.
Laila Weeks knows something about making an impact. The artist, whose work has been hanging on the white-bricked walls of Downtown coffee destination Zendo (413 Second Street SW), doesn't aim to dazzle you with a zillion colors and an encyclopedia of obscure techniques. Her current collection uses only one color—an eyeball-scorching shade of red acrylic—and a bit of ink and acid-etched metal. And yet it's impossible not to stare.
Part of what makes her simple abstract pieces so interesting is a telescoping sense of size. The drawings are just 4.5 in. by 4.5 in., displaying small, cell-like shapes and almost-organic forms in black ink on white paper. That sea of red paint nearly swallows up the tiny structures.
Then there are the etchings. Weeks explains that they're achieved “by a process of a resist being adhered to the plate, an acid bath being poured onto the plate, and the acid eating away the zinc coating, exposing the rustable steel beneath.” At 48 in. by 48 in., the galvanized steel sheets find those organic structures stretched and amplified, surging along on shimmering waves of reflective metal.
“Scale,” Weeks acknowledges, “is one topic at hand.”
Experience her work in person at the show's closing reception on Friday, Jan. 31, from 6 to 8pm. Austin Morrell will be on hand to provide live ambient music, and there'll be a raffle and snacks to settle your nerves if you get too lost among the art.
Confession: Ever since I was an 8-year-old boy trying on my grandmother’s vintage dresses, I’ve always been more than a little obsessed with frocks. Imagine, then, my pure youthful elation when I happened into Mariposa Gallery (3500 Central SE) this week and discovered the gallery’s east wall enshrined in more than 140 miniature tin dress sculptures. I think my heart literally skipped a beat.
For me, Marcia Sednek’s Happy Frocking 2014 show, open now through Jan. 31, is jam-packed with unadulterated fun. Half the joy of viewing each of the tiny dresses, which are all made out of found objects, is guessing what the items were before manipulation. Using recycled materials—like antique cookie tins, colorful paperclips, and even a rusty ol’ cheese grater—Sednek twists and bends each forgotten and worn object into a new and wonderful piece of art.
Sednek scours local flea markets, yard sales, and secondhand shops for the right ingredients.
You don’t have to be a child to appreciate the intricate detail that goes into transforming each piece. From the miniature roses on one work to the whimsical circus animals adorning another, no two dresses are even remotely similar.
Sednek tells me that what she enjoys most about being a mixed media artist is uncovering the beautiful in the ugly. Like a sleuth on the hunt for clues, Sednek scours local flea markets, yard sales, and second-hand shops for just the right ingredients for her collection. Then Sednek dons her own magician hat and skillfully alters them into fresh and beaming creations.
While viewing the resulting Happy Frocking 2014 collection, it’s difficult not to slip on your own magical glass slipper and be transported to a posh ball full of haute couture gowns. And, after all, isn’t that really the point of art? To uplift us from our daily drudgery and transport us somewhere magical? Sednek’s show does just that—and you’d be a fool not to experience the childlike wonder for yourself.