Sunday, September 2, 2012

14,000 years of Art in New Mexico

Do I need to tell you up front that I am not going to cover this subject in a page and a half of text?  Dr. Joseph Traugott, does with his book that accompanies the exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. It is titled “New Mexico Art Through Time” and it is a straight forward history of the art of the State. 

The show itself has the most wonderful title, “It’s About Time”. I love titles that get one involved and have you thinking about what the exhibition could possibly be about before you enter and the subtitle, “14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico” did not exactly enlighten me.

When I asked Joe Traugott, curator of the exhibition how long the show had been in the making, he replied, “40 years”.  He had the idea when he became an archeologist and began to notice how early on people began to decorate, or as he puts it, aestheticize, objects made for use.

The exhibition is far more of a think piece.  It starts out with the deceivingly simple question, “What is Art?” !!!  University courses cover this subject in a semester or two.  When I was at school I took courses on philosophy and Aesthetics that broached these subjects.  Aestheticizing for me was the most illuminating of the many Issues addressed.  As an archeologist Joe looked at arrowheads made over 13,000 years ago and Native American pots and noticed their aesthetic qualities which did nothing to improve their functionality but made them pleasing for the user, and today, the viewer.

Courtesy of the Blackwater Draw Collection, Eastern New Mexico University     

Dr. Traugott also makes the case that an object can gain artistic qualities by simply being seen in the context of a museum exhibition.  By illustration he uses rocket components by Robert Goddard (1882-1945), known as the father of modern rocketry.  Here we see a combustion chamber, nozzle and jacket (1931-32).

Courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center    

Another think piece is the pairing of “The Rabbit Hunter”, a 1945 painting by an Oscar Berninghaus (1874-1952) and a Japanese Internment Camp in New Mexico painted in 2009 by Jerry West (1923-). West’s father and uncle worked in the camp about the same time that “The Rabbit Hunter” was done.  West remembered what he had seen as a child and probably had photos of the camp.  Both paintings relate to the same period in the 1940’s.  The curator’s idea here is that New Mexico is a state that both looks forward and back.  The atom bomb was developed and tested in New Mexico effectively changing the future of the world.  (A wall size photo image opposite the paintings shows the exploding of the atomic bomb.) At the same time an artist is painting a picture of the rabbit hunter as if nothing had changed in the half century that came before.

Courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Art

Courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Art

It is difficult sometimes to know if the commentary on the exhibition label is expressing the curator’s views or those of the artist.  One such example is Thomas Barrow’s (1938- ), “The End of Photography” (1993-94), a mixed media piece.  It poses the question: do Instamatics used as the feet of the container and Polaroids, discarded inside, change the significance of photography?  Personally, I believe that to be a red herring.  Harvey Littleton who pioneered the Studio Glass Movement of the 1970’s famously said, “Technique is Cheap”.  He meant it is not the craft skill that is art but what the artist does with his craft that is important.  I believe that art is a word that is defined by the quality of what we are looking at.  You can see many weekend painters at their easels; but are they all artists creating art? I do not consider all painters or photographers to be artists.  As we know great photos have been taken with the simplest of cameras. The inspiration and the idea behind the photo is what is important.  The technique is a given. I want to come away with a thought that I did not arrive with.

Courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Art

An exhibition that does not only show an eclectic mix of quality pieces but then adds provocative questions to ponder deserves a great deal of thought afterwards and begs the return of the visitor.

In this case there is plenty of time to see and re-see the show since it will continue until January, 2014.  But don’t put if off lest you forget!

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