New From New Mexico

New Mexico's centuries-long traditions in the fine arts cast a deep shadow over Colorado art, both for better and for worse. It's not that we don't have our own strong traditions, particularly in painting and printmaking. It's just that there's so much going on in New Mexico that it often seems like everyone down there is some kind of artist.

That's no doubt why so many in Denver's art world have made the pilgrimage to New Mexico in recent months. But if you've been unable to take a trip to this summer's SITE Santa Fe, or if you didn't get an invitation to the internationally heralded grand opening of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum last month, don't despair. The summer's not over yet--and there's no need to make the drive south, because a couple of new shows provide the art lover with a New Mexico experience right here at home.

Off in the wilds of the western suburbs, the Arvada Center offers the excellent display Taos Today: Contemporary Taos Artists. On the east side, at the Singer Gallery of the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center, is an unusual exhibit bearing the exhaustively descriptive title Persistence of Memory: Contemporary Artistic Responses to the Hidden Jews of New Mexico. Both of these compelling shows are the work of freelance curators who've given their exhibits a highly personal spin.

Taos-based art consultant, appraiser and curator Caroline Lee organized Taos Today, which fills the Upper Galleries at the Arvada Center. Lee has taken an idiosyncratic approach to the exhibit, which was originally presented earlier this year at Albuquerque's Anderson Contemporary Art, that city's premier alternative space. "I knew the work that I liked; I just needed to get the artists committed," she says. "Many are close friends, and I understand what they're doing." Lucky for us, her taste is right on, and she doesn't go far wrong when she describes the participants as "the best artists in Taos."

Lee has excluded artists who maintain part-time studios in Taos, limiting the show to permanent residents of the town. Yet interestingly, she points out that most of the artists she's selected originally came to Taos on a temporary basis, as recipients of Wurlitzer grants, and only later chose to settle there.

The Wurlitzer grants were initiated by wealthy heiress Helene Wurlitzer, of the organ and jukebox fortune of the same name. She was a resident of Taos in the early twentieth century, a part of the chic and wealthy crowd that gathered around socialite Mabel Dodge Lujan beginning in the 1920s. Wurlitzer, who died at mid-century, became deeply attached to the artistic exiles who had taken up camp in the then-tiny town. She eventually established a campus of cabins and studios and provided funding for residency grants to writers and visual artists. The product of her largess, the Wurlitzer grants, continue to have a major impact on the art of Taos. "It's a shame Helene Wurlitzer isn't better remembered," Lee laments. "She was a true art patron, and there are so few patrons."

Though Lee focuses on contemporary art in Taos Today, she has stocked the show with well-established talents who've already enjoyed long and illustrious careers. Several have worked in Taos since the 1940s and '50s, and younger artists have, for the most part, been excluded. "Many young people are coming to town," explains Lee, but "it's too early yet to see if they'll stay."

The exhibit begins with recent works on paper by Larry Bell, one of the most famous artists to call Taos home. Bell gained worldwide acclaim in the 1970s for his conceptual work incorporating plate glass. Locals may recall him as the creator, along with Eric Orr, of the "Solar Fountain" sculpture, which stood in a neglected condition on the lawn of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts before being demolished earlier this year--to make way for a sculpture garden, no less. At the Arvada Center--where his work presumably is in safer hands than it was at the DCPA--Bell is represented by three mixed-media works from his "vapor drawing" series. Like the "Solar Fountain," these recently completed pieces display his characteristic interest in transparency. In "MVD 224," Bell lays planes of washed-out pigments and see-through papers over one another. The result is ethereal.

Immediately inside the Upper Galleries are three signature watercolors by the other world-renowned artist in the show, octogenarian Agnes Martin. Martin, of course, is the grand dame of Southwestern minimalism who has been working in Taos since the 1940s. "I had the most difficulty getting examples of Agnes's work," says Lee. "She's not too active, and everything she does is committed to the Pace Gallery in New York. Fortunately, I was able to borrow the three for the show from three different private collections."

In "Untitled," Martin has created four horizontal bars made up of parallel vertical lines. The pencil and waterpaint are so subtly colored that "Untitled" looks, even from a short distance, like a blank--if dirty--sheet of paper. But on close inspection, Martin's dense and meticulous drawing comes into sight.

Opposite Martin's three small watercolors are a group of paintings by Ron Davis, who came to Taos from the West Coast twenty years ago. Like Martin, Davis explores geometry. But while Martin's intimate grids have a quiet appeal, Davis is interested in making big, bold statements through his use of color. "Leidy," an acrylic on canvas, is a large vertical panel that depicts a harlequin plaid of green, blue, brown and white. The appealing plaid holds our interest by seeming to recede into an out-of-frame horizon.

More expressive than Davis's work, but also with a geometric angle, are the paintings of Bea Mandelman in the side gallery. An octogenarian modernist, Mandelman has worked in Taos since the 1940s, honing a style best exemplified by "Untitled (Carnival Series)," an acrylic on canvas that the painter has crowded with triangles filled with bright colors or rows of parallel black lines. The final effect is riotous--a description that also fits the works of septuagenarian Taos master Earl Stroh. In the exquisite oil on linen "Winds," Stroh has gone crazy with spirals of bright color, placing them next to and over one another.

Nearly all of the artists chosen by Lee have something interesting to offer. But standing out even among this heady crowd is Debbie Long. Still in her twenties, Long is the show's token emerging artist. But she'll take her place among the rest if the remarkable diptych painting "Procession" is any indication. Long achieves a wondrous effect with spurts of luminous white paint sprayed randomly across the two essentially black panels.

Denver curator, appraiser and art dealer Jack Kunin takes a different look at contemporary art in New Mexico with his Persistence of Memory exhibit at the Singer Gallery. In the last several years Kunin has organized a series of shows illustrating various aspects of regional Jewish art history. None, however, has taken up a more arcane topic.

The viewer is immediately faced with a problem--just who in the heck are the hidden Jews of New Mexico? Well, that's a long story that starts out in 1391 with the forced conversion to Catholicism of Spain's Jews as part of the many zany happenings associated with the Spanish Inquisition. Forced conversions resulted in the creation of a secret hybrid religion that contained aspects of both Catholic and Jewish teachings. In the late sixteenth century, many of the hidden Jews went to New Mexico, and today there are an estimated 1,500 descendants sprinkled throughout the state. Even more amazing, though, is that Kunin was able to find several accomplished artists in New Mexico who address this topic in their work.

One of those artists, photographer Cary Herz, a transplanted New Yorker now living in Albuquerque, has taken thousands of photographs at hundreds of graveyards and scores of churches. In the gelatin silver print "The Five Commandments," Herz documents a Hispanic tombstone with a Hebrew inscription. Other hybrid artifacts include Catholic church windows emblazoned with Stars of David and menorahs integrated into more familiar Catholic imagery. Richard Romero, a traditional woodcarver living in Santa Fe, has created brand-new examples of the same thing, most notably with the handsome wooden bas-relief "Our Lady of Guadalupe." It's a typical view of the Virgin Mary--until one notices she is surmounted by a Star of David.

Some of the work in Persistence of Memory is less literal, such as the magnificent painting "Queen Esther and the Grand Inquisitor," a creamy acrylic on canvas by Santa Fe's Harriette Joffe. The artist has developed her own unique iconography--water represents Judaism; the fish, Christianity--but some of the symbols she uses are universal: The inquisitor in the painting is identified by the cross on his miter.

Taos Today and Persistence of Memory hint at the dozens of New Mexico topics that remain ripe for exploration. Thank goodness art-business types like Caroline Lee and Jack Kunin will take on labors of love such as these. Because as much as we might like to, we can't all afford to take a vacation to New Mexico.

Taos Today: Contemporary Taos Artists, through September 28 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 431-3939.

Persistence of Memory: Contemporary Artistic Responses to the Hidden Jews of New Mexico, through September 7 at the Singer Gallery, 350 South Dahlia Street, 399-2660.

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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