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The Heart of the Matter
— Santa Fe & Taos


May 10, 2015


Intro

There’s an old philosophical debate about stuff, about matter. Do ideas come first? Or do ideas emerge from the brute, raw materials that we choose to work with?



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  • Writer
    Ellen Berkovitch

There’s an old philosophical debate about stuff, about matter. Do ideas come first? Or do ideas emerge from the brute, raw materials that we choose to work with?

If Plato pondered this conundrum around 360 B.C.E., so did Jasper Johns — around 1960. Johns’s subject matter of American flags and painted bronze ale cans — the signature of pop art — were seen at first as so mundane as to swipe fine art off of its pedestal and into the din of the everyday.

We’re well along into the 21st century now —and that puts us at a farther remove from western art’s material underpinnings in the Renaissance. In the 15th century, for example, the amount of blue in the Madonna’s robes would have existed in direct correlation to the number of florins a patron spent, having precious lapis ground into pigment for the painter. The more virtuous and richer the execution, the faster (it was thought) the generous patron’s soul would fly to heaven.

Among New Mexico artists, material relationships speak to deep histories: from cultural collisions between European and native cultures. From the way that applying techniques from far afield and then attuning them to materials close at hand generates innovation. From the inventiveness of contemporary artists for whom pop art’s call to operate in “the gap between art and life,” as Robert Rauschenberg spoke it, continually resonates.

SURFACING POP CULTURE

Painter Beverly Fishman heads up the painting department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and exhibits at David Richard Gallery. Her paintings are extremely thin, literally, yet their shallowness contains fathoms of meaning.

“Material choices come out of content for me,” Fishman says.

The content of Fishman’s work is the great big cabinet of American pharmaceuticals — pills, that is. Americans are swallowing more prescriptions than ever in a proliferating consumerism stimulated by advertising. The doctor’s bible known as PDR, or Physician’s Desk Reference, has increased fivefold in size since 1955. It’s Fishman‘s view that that factoid exemplifies the way that both the cure and the disorder have multiplied in our lifetime.

Materially, these issues lead Fishman to decisions about how to make paintings. Her paintings are reliefs built upon circular or rectangular carved wood or MDF panels. Their glossy surfaces are unblemished, slick enough to be virtually lick-able.

“The seduction of the work is also its warning,” Fishman says.

“It’s a surface that never chips or rusts,” she says of hers. “Why they’ve been painted in this very shiny, slick, sexy surface is because that’s how [pills] are sold.”

Since the 1970s, she’s used fluorescent-colored urethane paint. To fabricate the paintings, she employs a spray process that is executed by motorcycle finishers in a Detroit chop shop. Fishman oversees the process with a team of highly precise craftsmen whom she describes as incredibly creative and exacting.

What interests Fishman, both as an artist and a student of art history, especially of California light-and space artists, is the enduring relationship in American art between the inventions of industry and the possibilities to achieve machine precision in the art object.

David Richard Gallery is planning a national spotlight for Fishman’s paintings this year. In April they took her work to the Dallas Art Fair and will be taking her to Art Miami New York in May, EXPO Chicago in September, and Art Miami in December.

While the works are “fairly abstract,” Fishman says what is represented in the works are all “real medicines.” She adds that “anyone who takes the pill invariably recognizes it.” Perhaps you’ll hear a whisper in your ear, as you stand close to her paintings, of Oscar Wilde’s quip that those who don’t believe in appearances are shallow.

Cannupa Hanska Luger’s sculpture is also deeply influenced by pop culture, which he prefers to shape and thereby alter its meaning.

“I like using a variety of different materials because of the challenge of it,” Luger says. He reveals the nature of those different materials through juxtapositions which in turn, he suggests, represent paradoxes in contemporary life.

Luger will have his fourth solo show at Blue Rain Gallery timed with Indian Market in August. The new work he is creating is inspired by Neverland, the island of “lost boys” in the Peter Pan story.

Luger explains that he intends for his Neverland sculpture to effectively constitute “a new cosmology” of Neverland, which first materialized in Peter Pan theatrical productions, and today has new versions from Disney movies to TV miniseries to mass-market video games.

As an historical fiction, Neverland, according to the artist, is “frighteningly true to the native experience” because of its heedless mash-up of cultural diversity through problematic characters like Tiger Lily.

With that idea in mind, Luger works with clay as the foundation of his art practice. Clay lets him sculpt this imagined new flora and fauna of the fictional place that he is re-authoring with his art. Luger’s begun the process by crafting some half-dozen figures of a jackalope — a mythical jackrabbit with antelope horns — out of clay.

His work with clay grounds itself in his own cultural traditions. He relates that there are multiple clay veins along the Missouri River in North Dakota where he grew up on the Standing Rock reservation.

“The clay, it’s this same stuff that you make your cups or bowls out of, that you eat your breakfast out of.” Mastery of the clay medium speaks in Luger’s case, to an expressed desire to be “an excellent craftsman” at a time when he asserts that “everybody calls themselves an artist.”

Clay bespeaks permanence. “When I build something in clay, I have the realization it’s going to outlive me.”

Yet here comes the juxtaposition and the paradox. After having shaped his clay, Luger frequents craft and thrift stores for materials from felt to glue to glitter to feathers with which he effectively second-skins his figures.Yes, he literally covers the clay.

“We live in the instant instant,” he says. “We live in the mass produced. I like using these materials as a metaphor of adaptability.”

“If there’s one thing true for native peoples across the board, it’s that we are industrious and we are adaptable.”

PAPER AS MEDIUM

Very early in painter Emmi Whitehorse’s career, while she was still studying printmaking at Tamarind Institute and painting at University of New Mexico in her 20s, critics paired her name with that of European symbolist painter Paul Klee. Whitehorse today exhibits her paintings on paper at Chiaroscuro Gallery. They’re paintings that employ a rich vocabulary of marks which, in Whitehorse’s case, come from what she calls “very un-arty things” including architecture, jewelry, fabric, Japanese anime, and homegrown Saturday morning cartoons.

The paintings on paper are created with mixed media that include chalk, oil crayon, and pencil, all of which Whitehorse applies by hand. She might rub chalk pigments onto her paper with sandpaper, then spread them with her palm. Consider that human hand with whorls and lines powdered by color a kind of analogue for something viewers see in the paintings.

“My work looks very parched, dry. I think being out here the dryness does affect and inform how I work.”

The impact can be that one is both looking at the painting as a whole and seeing almost through the pigments simultaneously. This experience goes to Whitehorse’s intention to build up in the work an atmospheric field, as of geologic time.

Evoking this quality of time is the reason why she still employs this process begun in the 1970s. She observes, “There are strata in my work, and there’s thinness.”

The ideas in her work depend fully on the materials. Whitehorse explains that refined paper and pigments weren’t available, growing up on Navajo land. “If it wasn’t paper I wouldn’t be able to get at the scratchiness, the dryness, the time. That’s what it does for me and why I stick with it.”

Paper also has deep material resonance for Ysabel LeMay, a Canadian digital photographer who prints hypercollage on C-print or Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Baryta paper. LeMay transitioned from being a painter to being a photographer using computer-generated imagery. The medium permits her the “visual complexity that I was looking for in my work.”

LeMay exhibits at Verve Gallery of Photography and describes nature as her toolbox. There might be a riot of flower garlands evoking a romantic garden out of a rococo fantasy. And there are often birds — hummingbirds, finches, ravens, herons, doves.

She individually photographs each element in a given composition and then inserts it into the gestalt of what she calls “the digital canvas.” One work possesses 200 to 600 individual elements that have been digitally extracted and rearranged.

Digital photography allows LeMay to achieve virtuosity that she asserts frankly eluded her as a painter. While she allows that many people believe that it’s easy to design on the computer, she is very clear that it is not the keyboard but her vision, the artist’s imagination, that crafts the tableau.

ART MASTERY AND FINE CRAFT

Gustave Baumann’s 1930 woodblock print Procession (this year’s cover) depicts a processional row of girls clad in white, possibly the 1930 graduation ceremony of the St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe. The sky has a silvery appearance, which heightens the bluewhite lushness of apple blossoms. The “silver leaf” was technically aluminum leaf that the artist applied by rolling glue onto the block, pressing the paper onto the block, then leafing the paper.

Baumann’s meticulous technique was one that he had learned in Munich as a boy, before his family immigrated to Chicago in the 1890s. Befitting the German traditions of woodblock printing and the northern European palette, Baumann’s earliest works in woodblock were dark browns and blacks, and the subjects were street scenes.

It was 1918 when Baumann made his way to New Mexico, encouraged to try out Taos. It turned out, however, that he liked Santa Fe better. The timing was auspicious. Edgar Hewett had recently formed the Museum of Fine Arts. Hewett arranged a loan for Baumann and studio space at Palace of the Governors. By 1925, Baumann worked and lived out of his house on Camino de las Animas.

Baumann’s woodblock printmaking in New Mexico would dominate the remainder of his career (he died in 1971). As in both Procession and Summer Clouds, it is a style that is instantly recognizable for the fineness of the compositions and the incredible luminosity of the colors owing to New Mexico’s own spectrum: oranges, yellows, purples, blues, and, in the case of Procession, the aluminum leaf which conveyed gathering clouds.

According to Jeff Thurston, gallery director at Zaplin Lampert Gallery, Baumann made his own inks from ground pigments, linseed oil, and varnish. He did studies in gouache of the subjects he would print. He used a Reliance Midget press. >Every color required a different block to be carved out of basswood.

Thurston points out the shifts in Baumann’s oeuvre. In 1919, there was a thinness to the quality of the ink in his depiction of Ceremonial Cave (at Frijoles Canyon). By the 1930 Procession, the purity and saturation density of the ink is greater. As one gazes at Baumann images that have written on them a quality of timelessness, it bears mention that a great majority of the artist’s 275 woodblocks were created in New Mexico.

The renovation of La Fonda Hotel by Barbara Felix Architecture and Design in 2012-13 required the architect and her team to take a close look at an element that had distinguished the hotel when it first opened as a Harvey House in 1925: bed headboards. Those Harvey House/La Fonda headboards had been the inspiration of designer Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, working with another interior designer of the period, Earl Altaire.

But there was a big difference between then and now: most of the hotel’s guest rooms in 1925 had single beds. Now the majority of the 180 rooms have kingsized beds.

Felix explained that her team researched the shapes of the headboards as well as the designs when it came time to re-craft painted poplar headboards, which Ernest Thompson fabricated.

Where one sees the transition in content from Colter to Felix is in the fl oral motifs that update Mary Colter’s whimsical use of animal forms, such as goats eating out of tin pails. There are nine variations in style of the new headboards. There is the brilliant blue of morning glory blossoms on the vine. Sage green imparts a quiet feeling, red makes for pizazz. They all were painted in latex house paint by eight artists from around New Mexico, including Native and non-Native painters.

“Throughout the rooms we were playing with a mix of Spanish and Native American and folk art influences. We absolutely saw the headboards as a piece of art in each room,” Felix explains.

The materiality of textiles from New Mexico — whether Navajo blankets or Rio Grande weavings made by Hispanic peoples — speaks to the impact on southwestern cultures of contact between native and European peoples.

The coming of the sheep with the Spanish made wool widely available as the material basis of the weavings. The oldest of the textiles on view at Shiprock Santa Fe date from about 1850, says owner Jed Foutz. That period between 1850 and 1870 marked a time when Navajo weavings articulated simple patterns and muted color ways still considered by collectors to be authentic reflections of Navajos’ inherent preference for simplicity over embellishment.

During that mid 19th-century period native peoples dyed the textiles with vegetal dyes, both indigo and cochineal. There was no plant material in the southwestern desert from which to generate the vivid red of cochineal dyes, so the weavers stripped the cochineal dyes out of other objects. The blankets were utilitarian both for wearing and sleeping upon.

Foutz stresses that later — in the transitional period of 1880-1990 — newer, more geometric designs and patterned borders began to be seen. The influential advent of the trading post era after 1890, says Foutz, meant that many of the textile patterns still visible today were developed by those early traders who interpreted the desires of the fledgling marketplace for the weavers.

Along a wall that is bright with colors in orange and red, textile patterns include zigzags, stripes and even blocks of color, as if the weavers were prefiguring later color-field abstraction in painting. “To some people, it’s art; to some it’s still art for the floor as rugs,” Foutz says.

THE CHEMISTRY OF CREATIVITY

Pascal, who will have a solo exhibition at GF Contemporary in September, describes his “wall pieces” as poised between sculpture and painting practices. Be that in the realm of two-dimensional design or, as Pascal elaborates, “the use of sculptural technique to make things that resemble painting. It’s almost painting, but it’s not.”

Pascal derives surface color and treatment on the wall pieces using metallic patinas of powdered pewter, aluminum, iron, or bronze in a powder form mixed with a liquid metal. How the patinas oxidize, how they respond to the ambient conditions in his studio, all make art-making for him an experience of creative tension. There is experiment in form. The reactions of chemistry both extend and limit that.

Pascal says that as an artist reliant on the chemistry of oxidation, his materials constantly underscore that he is never entirely in control of the processes that he sets into motion.

“I want to surprise myself. I really believe that the best creativity comes when an artist surprises himself.”

Pascal’s use of these metallic patinas generates a span of resulting colors. That outcome in turn unleashes another process that obliges the artist to make a choice — whether that means waxing the surface into a leathery finish or spraying acid upon it for a pocked, weatherworn one.

The process speaks to Pascal’s fundamental belief in art as freedom of thought. “I like to push the conclusion as late as possible in the work so that I have the freedom to change my mind,” he says.

Mark White Fine Art’s front yard is a riot of color and motion populated by artist Mark White’s kinetic wind sculptures in a spectral array that evokes swishing wind or water. White is also a prolific painter for whom nature’s surfaces — reflections in water, canyon walls striated and etched with the effects of erosion — are achieved using a palette knife.

In order to achieve the look of liquescence that he prefers, he mixes transparent media with transparent oil colors. “For the last few years I have focused on reflections of diverse, watery surfaces,” White explains. “Applying semi-transparent and opaque paint in alternating patterns produces unintentional, serendipitous results.”

ROMANTIC ABSTRACTION

The gestural abstraction of painter Javier López Barbosa, who exhibits at Waxlander Gallery, is very surface-driven. Barbosa uses oil medium and a layering of glazes in order to achieve a surface that is both glossy and deeply colorful, almost like a storm in the process of building or an emotion that surges and wanes.

Barbosa says that he simply begins with color, and strives to paint with his body the way that a child plays. Some of this, he allows, owes to his own beginnings and the influences of growing up in Mexico. “In Mexico, everything is color,” he says.

At Winterowd Fine Art, Tom Kirby’s painting represents a conscious decision to pair antique and modern painting techniques. He uses old master glazes and traditional varnishes along with new polymers and acrylics. He reaches far back into the past as he did in finding a supplier in Europe of lapis lazuli pigment that he describes as the blue coloration on the columns of the temple of Karnak in Egypt.

For Kirby, the materials are the key that unlocks expressivity in his canvases. He says he sees the materials as a doorway that evokes — whether in the light of the moon or the sun — an abstract sensibility which, because of its deep resonance, can induce a meditative consciousness in the viewer. His blue is oceanic. His light-filled yellow speaks to golden clarity.

“My theme is light, light on surface and the action of meditative consciousness on our lives,” Kirby says. Finding the essence of color and the essence of his material is how he practices his art-making in counterpoint to our “divisive, analytic society.”

Hunter Kirkland Contemporary stresses that it selects its contemporary abstract artists, like Jennifer Jones, in order to present work with subtle impacts. All of Jones’s mixed-media paintings are on Baltic birch wood panels. She selects her materials, she says, based in part on whether she is striving to create a water theme with loose strokes, or a densely thick composition, as of trees. “Materials do inspire a piece based on the texture and manipulation qualities,” Jones says. Her solo show will open May 23d at Hunter Kirkland.

While Carol Hartsock at Greenberg Fine Art creates both abstract paintings and realistic portraits, she stresses that her material includes the richness of her experiences.

“My portraits are a result of tremendous good fortune that has allowed me to travel extensively, and this has immersed me into a kaleidoscope of cultures and colors in many corners of the world,” Hartsock says.

Her portraiture frequently depicts native peoples in ceremonial dress, often viewed from the back. The paintings include the portrait of a winsome and smiling Tibetan child wearing a vivid crimson garment. The character of the works includes a smooth surface that evokes emotional reactions based in part in a photorealist quality and colors that convey immediacy.

Hartsock’s solo exhibition at Greenberg Fine Art, “Both Sides Now,” opens in June 2015. Her use of alkyd oil medium in her abstract canvases allows her to achieve a marked luminosity and translucency. She revisits her canvases to build up translucent layers in the painted ground.

“Each step is an intuitively calculated step,” Hartsock says.

SCALING UP OR DOWN

Bill Loyd grew up on a dairy farm where, he explains, it was common practice to fashion new pieces of needed equipment out of used things — scrapped smelting tanks, for example. That fundamental urge to recycle materials describes how Bill Loyd today finds sources from which to make new things, including sculptural wind sails, bells, and gongs. Loyd’s embarrassment of fabricated metal riches can be visited year-round in his High Road artist studio in Truchas.

“From the side walls of 500-gallon propane tanks, I’m cutting quails and elk skulls. From the hemispherical ends of large tanks, I make spheres and cut crows or ravens.”

It’s work that Loyd’s been honing for 16 years and that he says is always in the front of his mind, whether he’s visiting a salvage yard in Los Alamos or a farm equipment sale any place. His past as a welder affords him a lot of fl exibility with scaling his sculpture up in size and height. He previously operated large cranes in the construction industry and now can sculpt up to 13- feet tall using big machinery.

The outdoor sculpture field full of sculpted wild birds is like an adult’s or a child’s playground, says Loyd. “A self-guided one.”

Indigo Gallery was formed by painter and sculptor Jill Shwaiko eight years ago. It’s important for Shwaiko as she works with materials to be able to create a span of sizes from the very small to the very large.

Shwaiko thus also has found that employing cranes and crane operators has enabled her to expand the scale of her sculpture to include tall outdoor monoliths.

Shwaiko, who holds an MFA in metal sculpture, was trained in lost wax casting techniques in bronze. Today, whether she’s making a painting or a sculpture, her preferred tools include palette knives and cake spreaders. That’s because as an aesthetic choice she prefers to coax contour, not detail, from her raw materials as she works.

“Detail,” for Shwaiko, goes against the grain of the cultures that she most admires — whether Pre-Columbian cultures in Mexico and Latin America, or Etruscan art from Italy — with many of their anonymous artists achieving their palpable, effective simplicity while paying homage to nature and their surroundings.

“I like things very simple,” she avers.

Her paintings of bighorn sheep that stand beside red canyon lands often under the moon call to mind the squareness of petroglyphs. Shwaiko says, “I love making a visual statement but also an emotional statement and a spiritual one.”

For Tobias Luttmer, a sculptor of animals who exhibits at Joe Wade Fine Art, material choices are a rich field that facilitate the ways in which he can be creatively “restless” in his sculpture. He has taught himself to carve granite and basalt, as well as exotic hardwoods and burled woods. When he works in metal, he welds stainless steel and casts bronze or aluminum. He speaks to the way colors in material can create his animal forms:

“Black walnut becomes a black bear. Highly figured maple become feathers on an owl.” While he perceived a white-and-black granite boulder as an arctic fox, it became a snow leopard when he had it on his bench.

He sources his material, often on foot. “I spend a good chunk of time hiking around in the mountains, finding beautiful old weathered granite boulders and standing dead birch trees, then hauling them back into civilization. I love to go out and collect materials from remote places, take photos of the area, then make a sculpture and be able to show a whole new world of possibilities.”

Luttmer describes materials as a never-ending and fertile puzzle that can both challenge him to work and fruitfully limit him to work smaller.

TOOLS FOR USE, LOCALS FIRST

Axle Contemporary, co-founded by Matthew Chase-Daniel and Jerry Wellman, opened in Santa Fe in 2010 as a mobile art gallery in a step-van. The power of Axle’s commitment to the community of New Mexico artists was borne out in February 2015 by an opening under a roof — at Peters Projects — exhibiting the work of 150 local artists and attended by close to 1000 people.

In September 2014, an exhibit titled simply, “Tools,” put the spotlight on functional and Dada-ist tools that 14 artists had fabricated. The show posed the chicken and the egg question. “To make art, a tool was needed, but to make the tool, art was needed. We can’t have one without the other.”

Chase-Daniel explains, “In order to make a sumi ink painting, Zachariah Rieke needed a special brush —a very large brush — so he tied a bunch of t-shirt fabric onto the end of a mop handle and dipped it in paint.” Michael Schippling cut apart and re-welded household scissors for a “disorientation experience.” Michael Sumner attached an electrical plug to a screwdriver. Plugging it in, of course, would turn the art experience into what critic Robert Hughes once called “the shock of the new” — but a deadly shock.

Local artists today are getting a big material boost through a new gallery named Santa Fe Collective, which exists as a platform for affordable local art ($500 and under) in painting, sculpture, jewelry and couture. Begun in 2014 by notable local artists Jennifer Joseph and Chris Collins, the ethos of the place is local, ecological, affordable, and income-producing for New Mexico artists.

Jennifer Joseph says, “Overall, we tend to choose artists who employ traditional materials derived from nature (clay, bronze, iron, silver, cotton, linen, paper, wood) and give it a fresh and contemporary twist and sensibility. Use of traditional materials creates longlasting value and is sustainable in the sense that these items are durable, not mass-produced, and can be passed down to future generations of art lovers.

HANG IT UP

A beautiful painting or work on paper should be displayed, and before that can be done, it should be framed. Frames come in a variety of materials, and whether it’s mahogany, ebony, aluminum, or gold leaf, it’s important to put the right frame on the right painting. Museum (UV) glass can be important for protecting fragile works on paper. For more than 40 years artists, collectors and Frontier Frames have worked together to enhance art by choosing creative framing materials.

That ideas and matter are still close partners is obvious. If art is the object made real, material remains its DNA.




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