Cultured Deserts: Off-Center in Arizona and New Mexico

With its dramatic geography and cinematic past, the Southwest is a place where myth and reality are often indistinguishable. Replete with saguaro cactus, howling coyotes, playful roadrunners, and colorful natives of all ethnicities, it’s also cliché land. The entire Southwest has been sentimentalized and misrepresented since the late 19th century by legions of artists who came for the local flavor, noble savages, Hispanic color, and erotic charge. After a few months, they fled back to New York, Chicago, or San Francisco having satiated their need for the primitive exotic. Still mainly a tourist destination, the Southwest is hardly the kind of place one would expect to find powerful and significant contemporary art that is also genuinely regional.

Nicasio Romero, Torreon, 1987. Fired adobe, 20′ x 8′ x 8′

This article is not intended as a compensatory list of artists who are doing well despite the handicap of living at a tangent to the major art centers, nor is it meant as a Baedeker to worthy cultural sites. Instead it is about the experience of making and presenting art in an area that is relatively poor, remote, and blessed neither with many art supporters nor a plenitude of significant cultural or educational institutions.

To be an artist in the Southwest is to live at a physical and intellectual distance from the major artmaking “centers,” to be removed from media and critical attention, to be endlessly compared to and contrasted with artists in New York, Los Angeles etc., whose urban-generated work is substantially irrelevant to the experience here. The curse of being “regional” is that it is often considered synonymous with being second-rate, provincial, cowardly, imitative. In this region, artists must contend with the powerful notion that real life and real artmaking are elsewhere. Robert Knight, director of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts, vividly remembers a friend’s response to his proposed relocation: “he told me: ‘don’t go there, it’s a cultural desert.’ I told him it was my intention to make it into a Cultural desert, emphasis on the Cultural.”

The cast of characters and personalities that constitutes the Southwestern art world is unusually diverse: East or West Coast transplants, native born and Native American, Anglo and Hispanic, a true microcosm of its populations. Regional stylistic diversity runs the gamut from the absolutely traditional and imitative Native American and Hispanic genres through to the restatement of every historical and contemporary Western style. Existing in the same towns alongside producers of these stylized forms, are artists making uncategorizable, eccentric, original works that have been created in response to such specificities as the local and indigenous culture, proximity to the border of Mexico, weather and geology—all aspects of life peculiar to the region.

The Southwest is a place of stark contrasts and traditions, which create a context existing nowhere else. This is one of the few places in the United States that has sustained a strong non-European artmaking tradition that continues to exert a strong influence. The isolation and near-complete lack of interest in what artists do here is seen by many as an advantage: the dialogue can be turned to serve one’s own agenda or can be combined with other things. The Southwest offers the opportunity to recast ideas in an environment that did not generate them and to which they are richly irrelevant.

Daisy Youngblood, Gorilla, 1996. Bronze, 37 x 39 x 49 in.

One characteristic of the area’s regionalism is a form of bricolage that considers phenomena such as the proximity of the atomic research laboratories in Los Alamos to ancient Native American ruins, or the extraordinary whiteness of White Sands and the atomic detritus left from its use as a testing site. Postindustrialism, the ghettoization and slow annihilation of indigenous peoples, the pollution of resources by poisons and overpopulation are the kind of profound, powerful realities that inform the work of artists living in the region. The art of the Southwest ranges across a wide spectrum; yet it also clearly presents the defined parameters of a distinct regional aesthetic. This Southwestern style is created out of the conjunction of the various forms of contemporary art with a consciousness of Hispanic and Native American art, combined with the influence of the landscape.

The rural landscape is spectacular, humbling; the forces of time and nature are everywhere evident. The traces of a past relationship between this terrain and ancient cultures are everywhere, even at the outskirts of the region’s largest cities. The issue of obliteration by development is at the heart of much of the Southwestern aesthetic. Many cities are characterized by disastrous commercial roadways and appalling, sprawling suburbs. There is a near-total absence of enforceable zoning codes; demands for more outright purchases of open lands, better public transportation, and some kind of coherent city planning often go unheard by city and state officials. It is impossible to avoid awareness of the odd juxtaposition of the ancient landscape and the new predations. In part, it is this unique environment that produces the Southwestern aesthetic—an obsession with the fragility of nature and the dangerous chasms between nature and artifice.

A third shaping force is what has been called the “border aesthetic.” This phenomenon characterizes artmaking in areas where “less developed” cultures abut “more developed” ones. Also called “mestizo culture,” it is a partial byproduct of mass immigrations from one country to another. In the cases of New Mexico and Arizona, this cultural intersection is that of the Anglo and Mexican cultures, Anglo and Native American cultures, and Hispanic and Native American cultures. These intersections have produced a powerful hybrid that exhibits characteristics of several cultures but is in sum something entirely different, mutant and powerfully energetic. New Mexican sculptors Luis Jiménez and Robert Haozous are among the best known practitioners of this aesthetic, which permits a vastly expanded range of subject matter and the use of vernacular materials. For example, religious imagery usually seen in shrines and traditional Santos figures have been widely assimilated into the work of more mainstream artists. All the cultures of the Southwest employ each other’s icons, both high and low; the region is a true cultural Mixmaster.

Erika Wanenmacher, Model Home, detail, 1991. Wood, leaded glass, and paint, 47 x 30 x 15 in.

Border culture plays with mating the Western notion of art as separate from life with fundamental and banal aspects of everyday existence in order to create a particularly raw and intense kind of imagery. This is not a melting-pot aesthetic, it is a third thing. The use of multiple codes and cultural mixing yields an incredibly flexible visual language that can be bent and twisted to satisfy more needs than the highly restricted, stylized language of the Western world’s art vocabulary.

This is not to say that the region is a homogeneous mass. New Mexican artists face a different reality than their Arizona counterparts: they live in a sparsely populated state that is also one of the poorest in the nation. For over a decade, there has been a precipitous decrease in support for the visual arts outside of those that attract tourism. There are almost no regular art programs in the schools; even the state’s once lively artist-in-residency program is now nonexistent. And yet, over 30,000 artists and craftspeople live in New Mexico—despite the lack of any level of patronage or support.

Nick Abdalla and Nicasio Romero are both native-born New Mexicans and products of the Art Department of the University of New Mexico. Both are actively engaged with the state’s close-knit art community. Albuquerque resident Abdalla, after many years as a painter, now makes large freestanding or wall-mounted cardboard and mixed-media constructions. This particular body of work has been formed by a lifetime of fascination with the landscape and art history of New Mexico. Like many artists in the state, he is an amateur archaeologist who spends days hiking in the back country looking for odd land formations, rock carvings, pictographs, and other forms of pre-Columbian art. Basketry, fetishes, Katchinas, and other Native American artifacts have also had a strong impact on his work.

Implement #12, 1983. Stone and steel, 13 x 23 x 15 in.

Nicasio Romero lives in a remote corner near the town of Las Vegas, New Mexico. His work bridges the tense gap that exists between Anglo and Hispanic artists in the state; its strongest characteristic is the way in which he combines his distinctly non-traditional aesthetic ideas with traditional Hispanic construction techniques. He manufactures all the materials used in his work either from adobe or bricks and tiles fired in his kiln. A large section of his 20-acre property is devoted to a sculpture park that he and his wife, the painter Janet Stein Romero, founded 12 years ago. Nearly every sculptor in the state, including the author, has exhibited at the El Ancon Sculpture Park during this time. Romero’s own work is nearly always site specific and involves reconfiguring ways in which the viewer relates to the landscape. His most recent work, a brick and adobe circular maze with a diverted stream running through it, accentuates the surrounding vista through repetition as the viewer walks towards its center, stepping over the stream several times before coming to an adobe meditation bench that faces the nearby cliffs.

Daisy Youngblood, a ceramic artist, recently moved to Santa Fe from the remote town of Bisbee in Southern Arizona. Isolation and a powerful landscape have always been crucial to her work. A maker of small, powerfully intense animal forms, she is the polar opposite of the careerist artist; the quiet and privacy that life in a remote area can provide is essential to her. The notion of the artist as urbanite has never resonated with her sensibility, which could only have been developed in isolation from mainstream contemporary sculptural practice.

Fred Borcherdt, Descanso, 1998. Stone and stainless steel, 66 x 30 x 30 in.

Erika Wanenmacher, also of Santa Fe, is a local maverick. A product of the Kansas City Art Institute and the Feminist Studio Workshop in Los Angeles, she came to Santa Fe 25 years ago and never left. In 1996, she was honored with a 20-year retrospective at Santa Fe’s prestigious alternative space, The Center for Contemporary Art (now Plan B). She is obsessed with the conflicts between nature and culture and has recorded that conflict in her self-published ’zines as well as in an amazing range of objects: tiny carved wooden men in bottles, eccentric machines, imaginary bugs of all sizes. She has been deeply affected by the atomic legends of the state which gave birth to the atom bomb; her Oppenheimer’s Ceremonial Rattle is only a small part of a large body of work derived from that part of New Mexican history.

Artists in Arizona, which is wealthier and more populous, work within a somewhat different set of conditions than their counterparts in New Mexico. Here the state is able to be more supportive of the arts, and has been responsive to demands for arts support. There are more collectors than in New Mexico, most residing in the areas around the state’s two main population centers, Phoenix and Tucson. Arizona supports a wide range of institutions and art-related services including many commercial galleries, numerous co-op galleries and not-for-profit spaces that encourage the production of non-object-oriented artworks such as installation, performance, and video.

Canasto, 1996. Willow, bamboo, apple, and plum, 16 ft. high.

Mayme Kratz who has lived in Phoenix for many years, is a self-taught artist originally from California. Her delicate sculptural work, usually in cast resin, is constructed from objects Kratz accumulates while walking. Her long, wall-mounted serial piece, For the sake of a sunflower, is typical of her concerns. Butterfly wings, sunflowers, dead birds, and lizards emphasize the impression that this delicate, light-filled work is about the cycles of living and dying, the passage of time—all things that strongly manifest themselves in desert landscapes.

Moira Geoffrion, on the sculpture faculty of the University of Arizona at Tucson, has been similarly influenced by the desert landscape; her drawings can be complicated amalgams of photographed landscape with appended wood or clay objects. Her small bronzes evoke creation myths and archaeological artifacts. They often involve small figures or architectural forms placed within landscape tableaux. Her work is a direct response to the primal nature of the landscape and the varied response of its populations to life within the desert’s particularly stringent demands. Geoffrion is president of the Central Arts Collective, a cooperative gallery that has been a major part of the alternative scene in Tucson for nearly 20 years.

Erika Wanenmacher, Oppenheimer’s Ceremonial Rattle, 1995. Gourd, copper, leadshot, and paint, 8 x 8 x 32 in.

Californian Mary Bates moved to Phoenix in 1996 to join the sculpture faculty of Arizona State University. Her work combines materials from science, medicine, archaeology, and the history of technology. It is hard to identify these mostly bronze objects and this difficulty in identification is part of their mystery. They are generally small, portable-looking forms that could pass for tools, vessels, or nearly unwearable jewelry. Bates is also experimenting in the area of digital surface mapping of three-dimensional objects.

Fred Borcherdt, currently having a 20-year retrospective at the Tucson Museum, makes forged and welded forms often combined with stone. His objects are curious; they imply purpose, but give no clue as to the exact nature of their function. A sense of time passed, of wear and history, is integral to the work. In contrast to his highly worked steel, he never alters the shapes of the stone he uses, preferring to use it as a kind of found object. He has been influenced by Native American artifacts and the land formations of the Catalina Mountains where he lives. The majority of his work is meant to be placed outside in the landscape in order to demonstrate visual kinship as well as to subject it to the forces of time.

Moira Geoffrion, Earth Planes: Human Strata, 1995. Mixed-media installation, 11 x 20 x 16 ft.

Another regional phenomenon can be seen within the Native American population. Under the influence of schools like the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, a small number of Native Americans are seeking to reinterpret their experience in a fashion that brackets the traditional with the contemporary. Robert Haozous and ceramic artists Diego Romero and Roxanne Swensell are cutting-edge in every sense of the term. Their goal to avoid conforming to either stereotype, native or contemporary Western, deprives them of two potential ready-made markets—those available to “straight” traditionalists and to “straight” contemporary artists. Their work functions by means of a kind of conceptual appliqué, a bricolage of contemporary vocabulary superimposed on references to the traditional.

One of the most surprising phenomena in both states is the existence of a thriving, energetic, alternative scene that consists of cooperatives, nonprofits, and artist-run spaces. Almost all the Arizona cooperatives, such as the Icehouse Art Museum (Phoenix), Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, and Central Arts Collective (both in Tucson), have been in existence for 15 years or more, have formal nonprofit status, and are extremely successful in terms of fundraising. New Mexico’s alternative scene was mainly born during the past decade; Albuquerque’s Site 21/21, ARC Gallery, and the Harwood Center are the consequence of an enormous effort made by a few individuals anxious to influence what has historically been a rather conservative art scene.

Mary Bates, Trihorn Swimmer, Diploid Form, and Benthic Fish, 1997. Bronze, 22 x 11 x 2; 17 x 6 x 3; and 20 x 11 x 2 in.

The Icehouse Art Museum, dedicated to ephemeral and experimental arts, is located in an old refrigeration plant in downtown Phoenix. Its founder, director, and curator, Helen Hestenes shows the work of Phoenix-area artists, as well as work in new genres by national and international artists such as San Francisco’s Survival Research Laboratories. The Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery opened in 1979 and took its name from its first location, a former ceramics store, which had “Dinnerware” emblazoned on its marquee. In 1987 it moved to and subsequently purchased its present space, a 2,400-square-foot commercial building in downtown Tucson large enough to accomodate the 20,000 visitors the gallery receives annually. The nonprofit is run by a cooperative of 16 board members; half the shows are composed of non-member regional and national guest artists. Central Arts Collective pursues an agenda similar to Dinnerware’s: eight artist-members run the space; exhibitions consist of members’ work and that of guest artists. The artist-members are mainly sculptors. This past spring the gallery sponsored the seven-venue “Merged Realities Exposition,” an extraordinary collaboration between Tucson galleries and the University of Arizona.

Albuquerque’s SITE 21/21 and ARC galleries opened their doors in 1995 and have had ambitious exhibition programs including invitational shows, competitions, and performances. Site 21/21 was founded by John McConville and Dakaxeen Mehner, both graduates of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Their beautifully designed space shares a rambling cinder block structure with a Holy Roller church storefront. ARC was founded by Mike Certo and Jessie DeLeers in an old warehouse that also houses living and studio space for several artists. The exhibition space, about 1000 square feet, has proven an ideal space for installation and other ephemeral genres. Entirely self-supporting, both galleries take part in city-wide events, and have worked in conjunction with Albuquerque’s main alternative art organization, the Harwood Center. Located in an old Methodist boarding school, the Harwood Center was founded in 1992 by artist Richard Goulis in collaboration with the Escuela del Sol Montessori school also located on the property. Goulis’s vision, to create working and exhibition spaces for artists in a city that lacked them, has subsequently been expanded through the visionary leadership of artist Suzanne Sbarge. She has made the center into a community arts center, offering an amazing range of arts-oriented activities from open studios to poetry readings to dance performances and workshops. At the end of 1998, Sbarge left Harwood to head one of the region’s most ambitious art programs, Magnifico. In partnership with the City of Albuquerque’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and other neighborhood and civic groups, Magnifico provides leadership in promoting the visual and performing arts. A private, independent, nonprofit organization, it brings together the region’s diverse cultures to produce original and innovative projects that could not have been achieved in isolation. As part of the widespread effort to revitalize the downtown area, Magnifico’s new space has a 5,500-square-foot gallery and a 3,200-square-foot main floor that will be used for programs presented by a number of organizations, including Site 21/21, the University of New Mexico Art Museum, and SITE Santa Fe. Artists will be able to apply to produce exhibitions in the space.

Mayme Kratz, Migration, 1998. Resin and natural objects, 56.5 x 15 x 8.5 in.

Although Santa Fe has not been as successful as Albuquerque in maintaining cooperative and alternative spaces, it has the incredibly lively Plan B, which rose from the bankrupt ashes of the Center for Contemporary Arts in the spring of 1997. Its directors, Michael Lujan and Zane Fischer, though still laboring under the debt of the previous establishment, have instigated a number of ambitious and successful revenue-making programs, including the extremely popular “Cinematique” in addition to a remarkable schedule of exhibitions and performances. Most exhibitions are presented in an adjacent 10,000-square-foot warehouse space where Coco Fusco and Karen Finley have performed. Last August, Fischer and Lujan took a group of artists to Berlin, marking the beginning of an international exchange program.

Both states have major public museums. The Phoenix Art Museum and Tucson Museum of Art both feature contemporary collections which are curated, respectively, by David Rubin and Robert Yassin. Both have well-supported community programs involving local artists, the carefully considered display of the state’s cultural heritage, and the exhibition of notable artists from elsewhere in the United States. The Phoenix Art Museum hosts the “Phoenix Triennial,” an undertaking that considers the work not only of Arizona artists, but also of artists residing in New Mexico, southern California, and Texas. New Mexico’s Museum of Fine Arts is directed by artist Stuart Ashman. It focuses on the art of the 20th century, exhibiting objects made by Hispanic, Native American, and Anglo artists. The Albuquerque Art Museum, whose contemporary collection is curated by Ellen Landis, has a diverse collection of historically significant New Mexico objects, art, and artifacts. Like other Southwestern museums, it supports local artists and their works.

Moira Geoffrion, A Crevasse at the Gray, 1995. Polychromed bronze, 13.5 x 12.5 x 10 in.

Both states have extremely active university art museum programs. The University of New Mexico’s Art Museum, curated by the indefatigable Dr. Peter Walsh, not only features programs that reflect the history of art in the state since the 17th century, it has also established a lively program of lectures and exhibitions of the work of contemporary New Mexican artists. Julie Sasse at the University of Arizona, Tucson, presides over five separate galleries, each of which has a distinct function.

Relying on a mixture of private and public funds, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts’ program features diverse exhibition and educational programs, which blend the local, national, and international. Many exhibitions feature Arizona artists combined with emerging artists from elsewhere. As this article goes to press, the museum is celebrating the opening of a new building: a converted movie theater, which adds over 20,000 square feet of exhibition space to its previous facilities. The premiere exhibition in the new facility is “The Art Guys,” profiling the Houston duo.

The comparable institution in New Mexico is the privately funded SITE Santa Fe, which opened in 1995 with its inaugural biennial, “Longing And Belonging From The Faraway Nearby.” Its ambitious director, Louis Gauchos, has designed SITE around the notion of the European Kunsthalle, an institution without a permanent collection. The majority of SITE’s shows originate with the institution; its mission is to link the regional art community with the larger world of contemporary art. It couples its exhibition program with an equally ambitious literary program underwritten by the Lannan foundation. Presently it is hosting “Post Mark,” a show that merges painting and sculpture and includes contributors from Los Angeles, New York, and England; this year’s feature is the SITE Biennial which will has been curated by Rosa Martinez (interviewed in this issue of Sculpture).

Nick Abdalla, Sentinel, 1998. Mixed media, 77 x 34 x 23 in.

Any description of the Southwestern art scene would be incomplete without mention of two of the area’s most influential commercial gallery directors, Lisa Sette and Linda Durham. They have had a major impact on the liveliness and diversity of the Southwest’s art community. These two determined women (Sette in Scottsdale, Arizona; Durham in Gallisteo, New Mexico) have made a point of showing the region that serious and significant artmaking exists in the middle of “nowhere.” Both dealers specialize in showing artists who maintain studios in the area, and both are supportive of emerging artists, patiently advising the aspiring and lending their expertise to groups as jurors. Extraordinary risk takers, Sette and Durham have built their respective businesses by convincing collectors that the artists represented by their galleries have as much value and validity as those who show in New York or Los Angeles. Both galleries feature a wide aesthetic range, from traditional contemporary through high-tech avant garde. Their exhibitions are consistently thoughtful and sophisticated, always emphasizing the unique nature of the Southwestern aesthetic and often demonstrating links to the art being made elsewhere.

Most writing intended to describe institutions and artists “outside the mainstream” sounds like an apologia for their not being in the mainstream, not being “at the center.” The concept of a center is essentially a marketing plan; “centered” art and artists are elided with the center that is their locale: New York artists make “New York” art; Berlin artists make “Berlin” art, L.A. artists make “L.A.” art, etc. The urban matrix has defined artmaking for over a century; those who leave it, like the regretful Gauguin, are rare exceptions to the rule. To choose to leave the matrix, with its self-assured definitions and clearly defined dialogue, demands redefinition of the “art-function” and what its products mean outside of the arenas that naturalize those definitions. The artists of the Southwest, to a far greater extent than artists in other areas, have had to reinvent their own roles. The effort to do so has led them to that elusive thing: the ability to be truly regional without becoming provincial.

Kathleen Whitney, who lives in New Mexico, is a sculptor, critic, and frequent contributor to Sculpture.