An Exhibition Belies Stereotypes of Artists in the Southwest

An Exhibition Belies Stereotypes of Artists in the Southwest
12 New Mexico Artists to Know Now, installation view, 2022, Pie Projects, Santa Fe (photo by Angie Rizzo, courtesy Southwest Contemporary)

Group shows always produce some degree of anxiety in me — I didn’t even make it through the Whitney Biennial this year. While watching an amazing video or looking at an affecting painting or a provocative installation, I felt a distracting pressure to see everything, consume everything, get everything. My brain short-circuited from overwhelm, so I left, mildly ashamed. Now, I’m trying to think of something overarching and poignant to write about 12 New Mexico Artists to Know Now at Pie Projects in Santa Fe — a show that I did see all of and that is perhaps one-thirtieth the size of the biennial. 

The exhibition is the 2022 iteration of Southwest Contemporary’s annual, juried open call for artists in New Mexico. The results are eclectic and reflect a breadth of styles, media, and themes, which belies stereotypes of artists working in the Southwest. I was most drawn to the artworks in the exhibition that rearranged my understanding of the world around me — the physical as well as the theoretical. Some works that mirrored ideas or events back to me with incisive or expressive force, especially Adrian Aguirre’s drawing from his series Patrol (2022) based on photographs of Haitian migrants being detained by border patrol agents when crossing the US-Mexico border. But sometimes, a mirror isn’t what I’m looking for when I look at art. I want to see a way out. 

Adrian Aguirre, “Jóven del Barretal” (2021), charcoal on paper, 30 x 22 inches (image courtesy the artist)

The largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history has been burning in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for the past five weeks, 21 miles east of Santa Fe. As I write, the fire is 315,627 acres and 54% contained. Town after town has been evacuated, and the loss hasn’t even been calculated fully yet. Whenever I look outside, depending on how the wind is blowing, I see either a diffuse haze or a massive plume rising behind the mountain peaks. This is only the closest and most visible manifestation of a global problem, right? But there’s no way for me to separate that daily experience from my experience of the work in 12 New Mexico Artists to Know Now. Fray 1–4 (2020), Nina Elder’s series of drawings made from charcoal that she gathered from wildfire sites, was an apt metaphor. Although the images were simply drawings of frayed textiles — of woven straps, their fibers twisting and worn, their strength diminished, spent — I felt comforted by the care with which Elder had rendered them.  

Nina Elder, “Fray 3” (2020), wildfire charcoal on paper, 24 x 24 inches (image courtesy the artist)

Another reminder of the wildfires was more abstract. Morgan Barnard’s “Envelop” (2022) employs motion sensors placed on the ceiling of the gallery, combined with data about wind in New Mexico culled from the National Weather Service, to generate movement on an otherwise monochromatic LED screen. The motion of my body plus the motion of the wind, which has stoked the fires and prevented aircraft from fighting them, created waves across the surface of the screen. I was there on a calm day, grateful for the placid blue of the monitor, which rippled gently as I passed by. 

Amelia Bauer rearranged space for me, helping me think my way out of familiar elements that comprise the built environment. Her flattened aluminum prints emphasized architecture’s power to carry cultural meaning regardless of context or use-value. A Doric column, neither a cylinder nor supporting a pediment, does not create or delineate space but stands in the gallery as a bastion of Western culture and all the ways in which classical forms have been used and misused to assert power. “Bent Wall” (2021), which copies a segment of steel fencing similar to that used on the US-Mexico border, literally conformed to the space of the gallery by bending down the wall and onto the floor. Bauer rendered it inert, emptied of its ability to dictate divisions. 

12 New Mexico Artists to Know Now, installation view, 2022, Pie Projects, Santa Fe (photo by Angie Rizzo, courtesy Southwest Contemporary)

The main room of the gallery, anchored by Elder’s drawings and Caroline Liu’s exuberant, magical realist paintings, drew me to it first. But in a back corner, along a darkened wall, two smaller works quietly held their own against the works by other artists who took up more real estate. Lucy Maki’s painting “Building Space” (2022) is a notched, rectangular surface bisected and wrapped by slender strips of wood, as if its frame had come to life and engulfed the support. Layered geometric forms suggest depth, but the notched edges and sculptural panels guided me through multiple viewpoints of this deceptively simple work. I was reminded of all my anguished reading of Michael Fried in graduate school, his rabid defense of formalism. Maki’s painting (sculpture? Does it matter?) couldn’t make his prophecies about the corruption of discrete media more irrelevant. 

Caroline Liu, “I Won’t Lose My Mind So You Can Find Yours” (2022), oil, acrylic, and glitter, 54 x 42 inches (courtesy the artist)

Mikayla Patton’s (Ogala Lakota) “Carrying On” (2022) paired well with the smaller scale of Maki’s painting. The formal referent for Patton’s paper and deer skin constructions is parfleche, a carrying case used by Plains Indigenous peoples, which she updates by combining contemporary design elements with traditional Lakota techniques. Patton had stitched a small pane of pink-orange acrylic onto the work’s front panel. The sun shone through the window of Pie Projects, and it flooded the work’s boxy interior with warm, pink light. As I peered through a laser-etched opening on the side panel, I had an overwhelming desire to inhabit that tiny space, to crawl inside it, to be carried myself.  

12 New Mexico Artists to Know Now continues at Pie Projects (924 Shoofly Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through June 25. The exhibition was juried by Louis Grachos, executive director of SITE Santa Fe, and Marisa Sage, director and head curator of the New Mexico State University Art Museum in Las Cruces.