SANTA FE, New Mexico – Marie Watt’s blankets march down the expanse of a large gallery at SITE Santa Fe, hanging like somebody’s spectacular wash from a row of receding clotheslines. The Portland artist, who comes from Wyoming ranchers on her father’s side and the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation on her mother’s, holds down much of the main territory at Santa Fe’s leading home for contemporary art, and her work reaches well beyond the blankets themselves. Cut apart and reimagined, added to by dozens of hands, pictorialized and abstracted, traditional and thoroughly contemporary at the same time, Watt’s blankets reclaim history and invent the future, subtly ravishing the eye along the way.
Watt is just one of several Oregon and Pacific Northwest artists whose work is popping up prominently in this city of Southwestern art. Painter and sculptor Rick Bartow is a key part of a show of work by contemporary Native American artists at Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art through Sept. 5. Many fine Northwest pieces, from Alaska to Oregon and Northern California, are in the large exhibition Connoisseurship & Good Pie: Ted Coe and Collecting Native Art, through April 17 at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. And as the annual Santa Fe Indian Market and its new rival, IFAM, the Indigenous Fine Art Market, crowded the town with visitors over the past week, a solid sprinkling of Northwest artists were part of the mix.
Santa Fe, with its deep history and mingling of three cultures, has an art scene that is divided along Indian, Hispanic and Anglo cultural lines, but that also crosses borders in interesting and sometimes innovative ways. The museums and popular markets such as Indian, Folk Art, and Spanish work closely together: indeed, the organization that runs the Spanish Colonial Museum also runs Spanish Market, and is trying to expand the market to other cities in the Southwest.
Unlike Portland – which has one large art museum and a single smaller one, the Museum of Contemporary Craft – Santa Fe is littered with small museums, both private and public, in addition to the larger, general New Mexico Museum of Art downtown. What you don’t find in one place, you likely will in another, from the Georgia O’Keeffe to SITE to the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts to the four institutions within easy walking distance on Museum Hill: the Spanish Colonial, Wheelwright, International Folk Art, and Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
The commercial gallery scene, meanwhile, is vibrant, with many old-liners and a new crop growing in the emerging Railyard District, where the farmers’ market also keeps things bustling, especially in summer and fall. Smallness can have its problems, in funding, collecting, and administration, but the varying sites and approaches create a sense of excitement and churn that single institutions often can’t match. What’s more, unlike other multiple-museum centers such as Los Angeles and New York, everything in Santa Fe is pretty much close to everything else. That makes museum-hopping fun.
Watt’s blankets at SITE Santa Fe are a central attraction of the contemporary museum’s 20th anniversary celebration. Part of the exhibition Unsuspected Possibilities, along with work by Sarah Oppenheimer and Leonardo Drew and continuing through January 4, they draw on the history of conflict and the history of ideas and extend them forward, reconnecting and rearranging the threads of community.
Blankets have a long and complex history among Native American cultures, and Watt’s art once again explores it gracefully and brilliantly. There is the legacy of smallpox blankets, disease-carrying “gifts” that, many historians believe (and others dispute), were distributed deliberately by early white populations to eradicate the tribes. Blankets provide part of the history of Native culture and design, and also the history of trade and interactions with white culture, as the long and fascinating relationship between Indians and the Pendleton Woolen Mills illustrates. And as an art form that people make together, and often pass down from generation to generation in families, blanket-making underlines the traditional importance of community. Watt extends that tradition by creating fresh works, with new ideas, from used or discarded blankets.
Collaboration is key to the show at SITE Santa Fe. Watt worked for several months with students from the Santa Fe University of Art & Design, Santa Fe Indian School, and Tierra Encantada High School. The students joined Watt in sewing circles, and on some of the blankets, you can see their work: specific designs, rows of stitching that are as variable as the hands that made them, a whole consisting of a community of parts. There is a verb to the noun of the finished artwork, its existence stitched into the fabric.
Something I like very much about Watt’s work is the way it quietly knocks over barriers of custom and belief. It’s Indian art and contemporary art, and completely comfortable in each. It’s also craft and art, wound together, and any distinction between the two ceases to make sense. Like so much in Santa Fe and the Southwest in general, it takes Native art out of the “folk” or “ethnic” category where it is still often ghettoized and asserts its rightful place in the larger art world. And Watt’s success as a contemporary artist is a success for “women’s” arts in general, overriding prejudices against “soft” materials like textiles that don’t last as long as paint or marble, and against decorative, “useful” domestic object-making. In fact, working- and wearing-art such as jewelry, pottery, and textiles are among the most prized in the Southwest, which has a looser and often more energetic sense than more urban centers of what art can be.
Among other current exhibitions at SITE is another with Northwest connections, Ann Hamilton’s the common SENSE – the animals (2014-2015), which debuted earlier this year at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. Hamilton’s installation, inspired by bird and other animal specimens at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, is collaborative, too. She’s printed images of the specimens, sometimes large, sometimes small, sometimes blown up to focus on a detail, often softly focused, onto tablets of newsprint sheets, which visitors can tear off if they wish and take home with them. It’s a generous gesture, linked to Hamilton’s theme of touch as the common theme among species, and which images get taken and which get left form part of the intrigue. Individually and as a whole, the works have a strange loveliness. They are evanescent ghost images, fluttering across the newsprint pages, reminiscent in a way of former Portland photographer Dianne Kornberg’s meticulously constructed and framed images of animal bones, but with a freer, livelier, almost kinetic sense of imagined reincarnation.
SITE Santa Fe, by the way, has some of the friendliest and most helpful staff I’ve encountered in any museum anywhere. A combination of guards and docents, these mostly younger exhibition workers go out of their way to talk about the work in the shows, explain the backgrounds, and in general be as talkative or quiet as they sense visitors want them to be. Their enthusiasm seems genuine, and they do it all without specious art-talk: It’s an intelligent yet relaxed and reassuring sort of engagement. Museums and exhibiting galleries interested in bringing in new audiences and turning them into regulars might well take note.
The Wheelwright’s Connoisseurship & Good Pie, a selection of more than 200 significant works from the collection of the late Ralph T. “Ted” Coe, is a celebration of both the vast variety and high quality of Native art across the Americas (with a few pieces from Africa and Oceania, too), and the passion and generosity of a great collector. Coe, who died in 2010 and lived his later years in a modest, art-stuffed house in Santa Fe, had been a transformative director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City (it was called the Nelson Gallery at the time), and also organized landmark national and international exhibitions such as Sacred Circles, which opened in London in the 1970s and greatly heightened interest in North American Native art.
The connoisseurship is obvious in the Wheelwright show, the pie not so much: nary a Wayne Thiebaud dessert painting is in sight. As it turns out, Ted loved a good slice of pie, and ordered it often wherever he went, which was pretty much all over the place, because he was restive and enthusiastic in his pursuit of fine works of art.
A few years ago I was fortunate to be invited to his house for the blessing of a Hamatsa hollow tethering pole by the great Mowochaht carver Calvin Hunt. Coe had discovered the pole Portland’s Quintana Galleries, which closed this month, and snapped it up immediately. It now rises high in the Santa Fe entryway of the Ralph T. Coe Foundation for the Arts, which catalogs and cares for the more than 2,000 works in his collection, and from which the Wheelwright exhibition is assembled. The pie also represents Coe’s indefatigable sense of sharing: he got to know the artists whose work he was buying, and many considered him a good and generous friend.
“During the years I assembled my collections I camped, attended feasts, ceremonies, and often just shared endless cups of coffee with Native people across most of the U.S. and large stretches of Canada,” he once wrote, and said of the works he collected: “They are not trophies but instruments of passion with the power to unexpectedly reveal mysteries.”
Coe saw Native art not just as a matter of historical record but as a continuing tradition, with great contemporary practitioners, and as much as he could, he supported them. He wasn’t a rich man, but he collected wisely and well, and the Wheelwright show provides a terrific overview for beginners and many a touchstone for specialists. It roams the continent and the centuries, ranging from a pair of balloon-shaped and subtly decorative Algonkian snowshoes from Ontario in the 1850s, to stunning beadwork both historical and contemporary, to a pristine small porcupine “fancy basket” from 1990 by the late Passamaquoddy artist Sylvia Gabriel, to a superb Northwest Coast Chilkat robe, to a splendidly detailed 1988 dance shirt and 2000 horse mask by the Assiniboine-Sioux artist Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty. She had created the dance shirt on commission for a collector who, when he learned the price of $3,500, backed out of the deal, leaving Fogarty with the prospect of several months’ work invested and no money to show for it. Coe scraped the cash together to buy it, and an enduring friendship began.
Fogarty, a genuine star in the world of Native American art, is the leader of a three-generation family of artists that also includes her daughter, Juanita Growing Thunder; Juanita’s daughter, Jessa Rae Growing Thunder; and, most recently, Juanita’s 12-year-old younger daughter, Camryn Growing Thunder, whose deftly painted parfleche (stretched and dried hide) purse won her best-of-class youth honors at this year’s market.
All four were on hand one day last week at the Coe Foundation to talk about their art and show off some of it, including a majestic Assiniboine war shirt, complete with rows of silky white whole ermine furs dangling from the sleeves, that Joyce designed and she and Juanita fabricated, and which took most of the year since the last Indian Market to complete. Their talk was gracious and witty and illuminating. Jessa Rae had been appointed chief speaker. Coming from the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, she noted with a sly grin, they were “the last of the hostiles” – a little historical reminder in a culture soaked in history. Joyce was the matriarch, speaking seldom but as the ultimate source; Juanita was the bridge. Connections run deep and wide among Native artists. At one point in her talk Juanita mentioned her friend Maynard White Owl Lavadour, the sterling Oregon traditional artist; later, she talked about doing a show with Portland luminary Lillian Pitt. What came across clearly, besides the tight family bond, was how completely making their art is a way of life for the Growing Thunders. Indian Market is their calendar: they finish work in time to take it to market; once market’s ended, they settle down to the next year’s pieces, working every day, for many hours, because it’s slow, meticulous work. Reflecting the artists, the results are beautiful and astonishing.
The layers of history in New Mexico are deep and complex, and time plays tricks. I’ve heard people in the pueblos talk about the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 almost in present tense, as if it were within living memory. It’s not, and yet somehow it is. After enduring 140 years of conquest and subjugation, the inhabitants of nearly all the pueblos ran the Spaniards out, a victory that lasted for 12 years until the Spaniards re-invaded, and everything started over again. But the memory lives.
Spend a little time here and you begin to get a sense of how deeply religion permeates the cultures, and how varying religions criss-cross and accommodate one another. You can see it in the art, from retablos to church carvings to paintings done in primitive style by Native artists working on European models of piety provided by the padres, but giving it their own twist, often reflecting their own, older religions. Outside the chapel at Taos Pueblo, a young man explained that his people are Catholic but also follow their own earth religion, details of which are kept private from outsiders.
At Santa Fe’s 1777 Santuario de Guadalupe, which was consecrated and then deconsecrated when the congregation built a larger church next door, and finally consecrated again, art and religion mingle not as combatants but as partners. While I was there I was immersed in the design, a place built for ritual, and the church art, from a statue of the lady in the courtyard outside, to a large wooden carving of her in a side room, to a grand devotional scene, painted in 1783 by Jose de Alzibar and brought to Santa Fe from Mexico by burro, behind the altar. In a museum, the art might not have stood out. In the church, it was organic, the way most Europeans experienced art for centuries. While I was there a very small number of people came and went, all Hispanic. They walked forward, bowed and prayed, and after a brief time left again. Art is as art finds as art means.
Santa Fe’s museums have declared this the “Summer of Color,” each choosing one to build an exhibition around, and I made it to two: blue, at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, and red, at the Museum of International Folk Art.
The Spanish Colonial, working on a very small budget in a small space, produced Blue on Blue: Indigo & Cobalt in New Spain, a smart, concise, and attractive show of textiles, carvings, earthenware, furniture, and a few paintings, much of it from the museum’s own permanent collections, that continues through February 28. It is by nature a little scientific – wall texts talk about the history and nature of the dyes – but in the main it’s simply an opportunity to look at the collection through the lens of the color itself rather than from a historical or stylistic perspective. Surprisingly, it makes for a cohesive show drawn from a variety of objects, from practical to decorative to spiritual to ornamental. There’s a late 19th century wooden carving, almost toylike, of a cowboy riding a white horse; a mid-19th century pen-and-ink colored drawing of Saint Isabela, looking flat and primitive like a medieval European church painting; a more sophisticated anonymous oil painting from a century earlier in Mexico of a good shepherd, flock at hand and cherubs flapping in the air above; several superb blankets; and an oddly enchanting, highly stylized crucifixion painting by the early 19th century artist José Manuel Benavides. The variety is strangely beguiling, reflecting bits and pieces of a whole blue world-view.
At least as intriguing, in an utterly different way, is the Spanish Colonial’s Traditión, Devoción y Vida: 80 Years of Black and White Photography in New Mexico and Mexico, which runs through October 31. Drawn mostly from the collection of Anne and William Frej, and including some pristine examples of William Frej’s own work, the show goes above and beyond the ordinary run of photo shows, documenting many fascinating slices of life but also concentrating on composition: the angles and shades and balances inside the frame. If anything’s accidental among these images, it’s perfectly accidental. Ranging from big-name photographers like Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Mexico’s Flor Garduño to people you’ve likely never heard of, the exhibit maintains a consistently high quality. In a city with several very good commercial photo galleries, it’s good to see one of the museums devoting well-considered time and space to the art form, too.
If Blue on Blue makes the most of the least, the folk art museum’s The Red That Colored the World, on view through September 13, makes the most of the most, sprawling across several galleries and taking advantage of a big budget to present works from around the world. It’s a lavish exhibition built around the discovery and worldwide spread of cochineal, the red dye made from tiny New World insects that cling to prickly cactus plants. Cochineal, in use long before the European conquest, became worth almost its weight in gold after contact: It became the second most valuable export from New Spain, behind only silver, and English buccaneers made fortunes by raiding Spanish merchant ships and stealing cochineal by the ton.
Part scientific exhibition and part historical, in addition to artistic, The Red That Colored the World tells the tale of cochineal and compares it to other red dyes that are less brilliant. It traces trade routes to places like the steppes and deserts of Asia, where it was woven into tapestries and rugs, and to Napoleon’s dining halls, where it colored the armchairs, one of which is on display, borrowed from the New-York Historical Society. The exhibit is partly the result of something like an international treasure hunt: major museums around the world tested likely pieces in their collections for evidence that chochineal was used on them, and several of those pieces ended up in the show. There are a few true masterpieces here: El Greco’s early 17th century painting The Savior, with its folds of blue robe over a rich red garment and a look of piercing sadness on its subject’s unstylized face, on loan from the El Greco Museum in Toledo, Spain; Orlando Dugi’s stunning contemporary beaded evening gown; a magnificent 19th century Lakota headdress.
There are unexpected pleasures, like an Edo period Japanese ceremonial fireman’s hooded cape, blaze-red with sinuous accents of embroidery and appliqué. There are fascinating illustrations, such as José Antonio de Alzate y Ramirez’ 1777 Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail. And mostly, there is a brilliance of textiles, painted or upholstered furniture, manuscripts, maps, paintings, and decorative pieces: a wonderful world of red, all around.
What makes New Mexico’s art scene so lively, I think, is its embrace of the region’s three main cultures, and the connections between its contemporary life and its deep history. Gaps remain, and overlaps of interest among some of the museums can cause a bit of head-scratching: why, for instance, does the folk art museum maintain a significant collection of Spanish colonial art when the Spanish Colonial Museum is just a saunter away?
There can be splits between traditional and more contemporary Native American artists (the birth of IFAM, the Indigenous Fine Art Market, in competition with Indian Market partly reflects that), but many artists are connecting old and new with a high degree of sophistication. Increasingly, Native artists are university or art-school trained, familiar with contemporary movements and Western art history. Watt’s work fits comfortably with the tradition-sampling innovations of artists such as the New Mexico brothers Mateo and Diego Romero, or Chippewa painter and Santa Fe resident David Bradley, whose droll mashups of pop culture, art history, and Indian life are on view through January 16 at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture. Native American art and artists are important and highly recognized players, while in the Northwest, Native artists of comparable quality are known mainly in specialized circles, and are sometimes better-known outside the Northwest than at home. With a few exceptions, such as Bartow, Pitt, and Watt, they simply don’t get the same broad attention, maybe because Native cultures in the Northwest are more hidden from the larger public view.
I can’t help thinking that the sheer number and variety of museums in Santa Fe has a lot to do with the excitement of the city’s art scene. Something’s always happening, and the word gets out: the daily New Mexican’s weekly Pasatiempo arts section covers the scene smartly and in depth. It doesn’t hurt that Santa Fe has long been a magnet for money and talent, including all those writers, photographers, and painters who moved here a hundred-odd years ago for the angles and the light. They, too, became a part of a cultural history that continues to deepen.
You can’t buy history, or fabricate it overnight. And the Northwest is still a kid, tracing its post-contact history back only a couple of centuries, to Lewis and Clark and a few sailors who stopped by earlier for supplies: It’s a comparative cultural pup in training pants, and that shapes both the art that’s made here and, maybe more crucially, the region’s interactions with it.
Of course, that’s not a blanket statement.