Sunday, March 8, 2020

Murals of New Mexico

The article by one of our great art critics, Peter Schjeldahl, “Wall Power: The influence of Mexico’s Great Muralists” (The New Yorker of March 2, 2020) about the exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, made me think …

Well then, why not the murals of New Mexico. The great Mexican muralists have certainly been an influence here along with the WPA commissions for Federal Buildings during the Depression. Set against our clear blue skies, the brown earth colors of walls that continue our regional tradition of adobe construction make a perfect background for commissioned murals and those by what are today known as street artists. 

If you define a mural as painting on a wall, then murals date back to 30,000 BC from the earliest paintings in the Chauvet cave in France but the art form is alive and well. Banksy, an England-based street artist, is a name that many of you may have heard of because he can bring big money at auction, but the authors of many murals are unknown, sometimes because the works are collective efforts. 

The Mexican modernists used murals to tell us the history of a place. This is the case with a major mural in Santa Fe which as I write is slated for destruction.  It is by a local Hispanic artist, Gilberto Guzman together with a team of Native American, Anglo and Hispanic artists. Guzman is 88 years old and the work was done nearly 40 years ago. It was commissioned for a building that then housed the state archives. Left in dereliction the building is to be subsumed into a new and larger museum of contemporary art.  It is being built under what I consider a false premise; that people who have come originally from, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas or Palm Springs will leave important works from their collections to a small museum in Santa Fe rather that the more illustrious institutions in the places they came from. 

According to the official statement from the state, the reason that mural is not to be incorporated in the facades of the new contemporary museum is because it is “unstable with extensive cracking.”  A writer to our local newspaper pointed out that Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco of “The Last Supper” started to deteriorate a few years after it was painted but they have managed to preserve it.  So, it is with most murals: they naturally need frequent restoration … a time-honored practice. 

A number of “compromises” have been offered to satisfy protesters of the loss of our mural in the heart of our city that celebrates our multiculturalism.  Proposals include a photographic image to be projected “somewhere” inside the new museum, and, more recently, chunks of the original to be installed in the new museum’s lobby.  Here is most of the image already sealed off from the street and an image before the controversy.

For a mid-20th century traveler along the 2,450 miles of Route 66 spanning 8 states it would have seemed that billboards had replaced murals. There is still a famous series urging motorists to spend the night in the New Mexico town of Tucumcari which boasts 2,500 motel beds, though it had only 5,000 residents. It turns out that now even Tucumcari has its own mural by Doug and Sharon Quarles celebrating its billboard history.

A number of murals contribute to the recent campaign to improve image of the city of Gallup, New Mexico.  Located in the middle of Indian Country, it had been a place where Indians went to get drunk since the reservations are dry.   Also, there are quite a number of unscrupulous dealers selling fake Indian Jewelry with signs for 50% off.  However, the city is proud of their annual “Indian Ceremonial” which is a major Intertribal gathering with dances and events.  Here is a Gallup mural that pays tribute to the Navajo Code Breakers of World War II.  It is by Be Sargeant.

I cannot find an artist’s name for this mural of a war scene which was painted in August of 2011 on the new Hamilton Military Museum in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

This next image is from a parking lot in Taos, New Mexico.  The artist is George Chacon.  I cannot explain why but, for me, seeing this mural every day would make the ritual of parking actually pleasurable.

While touring through New Mexico it has always been a pleasure to look up and discover a mural in an unexpected location. This mural on a water tower can be found in the only town I know of named after a game show, “Truth or Consequences”.

Murals can be found everywhere.  For friends and family visiting Philadelphia my daughter arranged an impressive tour of recent murals in underserved urban communities, but for me the incredible light and bright colors of the southwest give the murals of New Mexico a special quality. I fervently hope that the growing community effort succeeds is saving the best example in Santa Fe.

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