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.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia