Down New Mexico Way

Given Colorado's relatively small population and isolation from the centers of American culture, the high level of art the state has supported over the years is nothing short of amazing. In fact, there's only one thing that prevents Colorado from dominating the artistic culture of the mountain west--New Mexico, which is even more isolated and less populated than Colorado.

The casual observer might think of New Mexico's art as exemplified by the ubiquitous teal or pink sheet-metal coyote. But there's more to it than that--like a millennium's worth of American Indian art, more than 400 years of Hispanic art and more than a century of art with a distinct American influence. The incredible abundance of material and the long history of many different kinds of people making it has led more than one observer to suggest that New Mexico proves the concept of the genius loci--that the place itself plays a key role in the artistic development that occurs there.

So pity the world of Colorado art. We're so far from New York--but so close to New Mexico. That proximity has led to artistic comparisons in which Colorado typically loses out. But there is an upside to having such a place so close by: the frequent exhibits mounted around Denver that highlight New Mexico material. Right now, for instance, there are at least half a dozen fine shows that fill this bill, among them a photographic exhibit at the Museo de las Americas entitled En Divina Luz: The Penitente Moradas of New Mexico and two shows at the Arvada Center, Art of the American West, which features early twentieth-century paintings on Western themes, and a print show, Impressions of the American Southwest.

En Divina Luz is a traveling exhibit organized by curators Felipe Mirabal and Kellen Kee McIntyre of the Albuquerque Museum. The show features large-format black-and-white photographs by Santa Fe photographer Craig Varjabedian, part of a seven-year project to document the Penitentes' often-ancient fraternal houses of devotion. The Museo also has supplemented the Varjabedian photos with devotional objects and documents related to the Penitentes that were borrowed from several local sources, including private collectors and notably the collection of Regis College.

The self-flagellation often associated with the Penitentes--formally known as The Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene--is one of their many practices that have not been addressed by Varjabedian. Instead, he has photographed only the exterior of the Penitentes' moradas (essentially fraternity houses with a chapel, meeting room and workroom). And in order to protect the privacy of these lay-Catholic groups and the secret location of their moradas, the titles of the photographs refer only to the season, the time of day and the year--all of which are important variable aspects in Varjabedian's photos. Somehow, though, these exquisitely composed and deep-focused photos still seem to convey the personality of the unseen members of the brotherhood.

Stylistically, Varjabedian's photographs fall into the classic tradition of West Coast photography; he notes the influences of California photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, along with Santa Fe photographer Paul Caponegro, whom Varjabedian describes as his "idol and mentor." To get the optimum technical effect, Varjabedian confesses, he "will take any liberty that can't be seen" with his negatives. But he carefully controls his exposures, and may print on four or five different papers before hitting on the most appropriate one.

After Varjabedian came up with the idea for "Moonrise Over Morada, Dusk, Late Autumn, 1991," it took months for the moon to get into just the right place; the marvelous cloud cover that dramatically darkens the top third of the frame was a lucky stroke. In the photograph, the adobe building with a bell on top is small but monumental, with the moon rising directly above it and rugged arid hills on either side. And the same eighteenth-century building is the subject of a very different photo, "Morada After the Fire and the Devil's Pentagram, Afternoon, Autumn, 1992." In that piece we see a closeup of scorched windows and doors, and spray-painted graffiti of a pentagram and the numbers "666." The juxtaposition of the passing fancy of teenage satanists to the age-old faith of the Penitentes is gut-wrenching.

The moradas often resemble churches, as is seen in "Crosses Over Door Depicting the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, Morning, Spring, New Mexico, 1990." But they were built like domestic dwellings, a distinction that drives home an important point: The Penitentes always have operated outside the auspices of the Roman Catholic church, which has often taken a dim view of their practices and which is one reason for their interest in secrecy.

The two exhibits at the Arvada Center take a more secular view of New Mexico, though sacred scenes also are sprinkled throughout. Both Art of the American West and Impressions of the American Southwest feature pieces that Arvada Center head curator Kathy Andrews obtained on loan from the permanent collection of Pueblo's Sangre de Cristo Arts Center.

For Art of the American West, Andrews selected from the Francis King collection of Western art. King was a wealthy Pueblo lumber dealer who began collecting Western art with his first wife, Katherine, in the 1930s and continued after Katherine's death with his second wife, Mildred, into the 1970s. Looking at this slice of the collection, it's apparent that Mr. King was neither a connoisseur nor a spendthrift. Many minor and questionable works are included, and King's approach to the scholarly side of collecting seems to have been pedantic. For a time, he collected only artists referred to in the book The Cowboy in Art by Ed Ainsworth. Later, King sought out examples of each of the "Taos Ten" as though he were satisfying a grocery list.

King, however, was interested in early twentieth-century Western painting at a time when few others were. He was shooting fish in a barrel--and couldn't avoid hitting a masterpiece as often as not. And that's what makes this collection worth seeing.

Take, for example, the spectacular "Rancho de Taos Church," an oil-on-board by Ernest Blumenschein from 1924. Blumenschein, a member of the "Taos Ten," was a leading exponent of plein air painting in which he attempted to record the very atmosphere itself. In this painting, he does. The viewer glimpses the pink church against the blue sky through a pink and purple haze. Another member of the "Ten," Walter Ufer, takes a similar yet distinct approach in the dauby and modernist "Pueblo Afternoon," an undated oil-on-board that probably is also from the 1920s.

Other "Taos Ten" artists also are represented by beautiful, if minor, paintings in the King collection. Joseph Henry Sharp's early-twentieth-century oil-on-board "Crow Village" is a tiny gem of a scene depicting an American Indian encampment; E. Martin Hennings presents a long view of a wagon train in a landscape entitled "Visitors Arriving--Taos Pueblo," an oil-on-canvas that probably dates from the 1930s.

One of the finest paintings in the collection is by a Santa Fe artist not associated with the "Ten" but whose romantic impressionist work is linked to Taos nonetheless--Fremont Ellis. In the large oil-on-canvas "Visitors," which is undated but is surely from the 1930s, it looks as though Ellis has squeezed paint right from the tube to create the leaves of the tree that occupies most of the picture plane. The result is a shiny and delicious play of lights and darks.

While King spent most of his money in New Mexico, he also collected Colorado paintings, and the Arvada Center show includes a handful of works by important local artists. "Golden Hour in the Rockies" is a tasty little turn-of-the-century oil painting by Charles Partridge Adams, and there's also a serene 1897 landscape, "Pikes Peak from the Arkansas River Near Pueblo" by Harvey Otis Young.

It's interesting to note that King did not include in his collection the work of any of the important artists associated with the Broadmoor Academy who came from all over the country to work nearby in Colorado Springs. Nor did he include the work of A.R. Mitchell, a master of Western romanticism who worked in Trinidad (on the way from Pueblo to New Mexico). The grass, apparently, was always greener on the other side of the state line.

Of a more consistently high quality than Art of the American West is its companion exhibit from the Sangre de Cristo, Impressions of the American Southwest. This second show focuses on the prints of Gene Kloss, a major American printmaker who has lived and worked in Taos since the 1920s. The high level of Kloss's work is evidenced here in drypoint and aquatint intaglios (which, by the way, she has always pulled herself). There are dozens of prints ranging over many decades, and one is more beautiful than the next.

Born in Oakland in 1903, Kloss has written that her earliest memory is of the fires from the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. After attending some of the finest art schools in California, she wound up in Taos on her honeymoon in 1925--and she's still there.

Kloss became enraptured by the scenery, the architecture and the people of Taos, and many of her prints refer to all three. For example, she often took up the subject of American Indian and Hispanic rituals indigenous to northern New Mexico, never bringing a camera but relying on memory alone to conjure the scenes. The viewer can almost feel the cold night air in the rhythm of the blacks and whites of "Indian Ceremonial," a 1934 print incorporating etching, drypoint and aquatint. Kloss has simplified and conventionalized the figures to better correspond to the soft repeated forms of the local architecture. And she took up a very similar scene thirty years later with "Winter Solstice Dance," a drypoint and etching from 1962. This time the ceremony is performed in bright daylight.

Another of Kloss's pictorial interests are her panoramic landscapes in which small figures have been set in the foreground. In "Penitente Fires," a drypoint and aquatint from 1939, a group of Penitentes face a fire that burns behind the morada; a rope of smoke rises above the mountains beyond. These Kloss prints are part of a large group of works by the artist that have been given to the Sangre de Cristo by an anonymous donor. Judging by the volume, the pristine condition and the quality, that donor must either be Kloss herself or someone very close to her.

All three of these promising shows serve to whet our appetite for one of the most promising and exciting art events to hit town in years: The Real West, which opens March 30. Through an unprecedented act of cooperation, Western-art treasures from the permanent collections of the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado History Museum and the Denver Public Library will be presented in coordinated displays at the three institutions. Believe it or not, in spite of the fact that the three institutions have been headquartered next to one another for decades, the show will mark the first time ever they've worked together. In the meantime, though, get over to the Museo and the Arvada Center for the appetizers.

En Divina Luz: The Penitente Moradas of New Mexico, through April 21 at the Museo de las Americas, 861 Santa Fe Drive, 571-4401.

Art of the American West and Impressions of the American Southwest, through April 7 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3080.

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