New Mexican artists move forward by
James Mann, curator at the Las Vegas Art Museum, has
a thing for tradition. In fact, he thinks it's the wave of the future.
The age of postmodern deconstruction is, to Mann, passé
"Their positions were valid at the time," explained Mann during a recent conversation. But art can't be dismantled any more than it already has been."
He went on to make a comparison to the beating
of already long-dead horses. And maybe he has a point. Maybe we've
taken the postmodern bent too far, tearing pieces of pieces of pieces
down, and then forcing viewers to still appreciate the leftover scraps,
like artistic (or literary, for that matter) roadkill. It's a theory
the passionate curator has put into practice in the JVAMs recent
exhibit, Fifteen Santa Fe Artists.
Don't let the title fool you.
This isn't "Southwestern" art on display, and there isn't a single Kokopelli in the mix. The grouping of more than 125 pieces has less to do with locale than it does a shared sensibility; or what Mann refers to as a collective revolt against the "dominant dismantling of tradition."
Still, place is a dominant theme flowing through several of the artists'
work, from Paulette Frank's Cezanne-inspired desertscapes to Whitman
Johnson's Santa Fe hillsides to Michael Wright's journey from solid
terrain to more abstract studies in desert earth. While some of
these pieces left this landscape-weary critic high and dry Joel
Greene's cubist renditions took the scenes in an interesting direction.
Mann claims we're on the brink of a brave new
artistic era, one defined by its imminent return to more classical
influences (or neoclassical, baroque, Renaissance, etc.). The 15
chosen artists help define Mann's "radical" position by combining
the lessons of the past with fresh, innovative visions of the present.
Geoffrey Laurence's portrait series, placed front
and center, illustrates Mann's merger concept. The artist's focus
on form is as apparent in his modern figures (soldier, prom date,
guy shaving) as it is in his reproductions of Renaissance artworks
that hang as a backdrop behind the characters, offering a simultaneous
view of both.
Jody Sunshine's work offers more of a study in
artistic evolution in influences, ranging from thick-stroked interior
portraits ('70s) to highly abstract, conceptual pieces ('70s) to
her most recent collage-style acrylics, such as 'just Before the
Bride Fainted," which despite their brash,
Warholian pinks, drip with irony and sadness.
From here, artist Jerry
West takes us deep into the-time-honored artistic tradition of the
grotesque, offering graphic depictions of the gruesome underbelly
of self-destruction and imperialism, with several post-apocalyptic
landscapes simmering in flames and nuclear ash. Still, the Monty
Python-esque "Return of the Nuclear Warrior" caught me grinning.
It's pretty morbid stuff, and it offers an interesting contrast to
Jo Basiste's clever, but far tamer portrait series of the "Seven
Cardinal Virtues" In the next room over.
Zara Kriegstein's four-panel mural study tells
Santa Fe's judicial history through vivid, storybook illustrations,
while other historically focused works show a world of booze, boobs
and corrupt politicians, which should score knowing nods from Vegas
viewers. She's also embraced a classic tradition of painting the
faces of friends, colleagues and prominent city figures into her
characters, kind of like product placement, only cooler.
goes right for the products, infusing pop-culture tidbits like Marlboro
Men and a Hertz office. But he shows a far different side in "Heron with Abstract," which
starts as a relatively tame wildlife portrait, then explodes outward
(onto diagonally arching ciayboards) into intricate tessellations
of wing-shaped patterns. And I took a particular liking to Dennis
Flynn's modernized takes on such classics as Munch's "
Frieze of Life" and
Botticell's "Venus,' where the namesake's decked out in a pink polka-dot
"Some may consider [the collection} conservative in nature," says
Mann. " But i disagree. It's radical in going beyond the current
So, is derivative the new innovative? In the
end, whether or not you choose to view the exhibit in light of Mann's
goals (a process that, for me, only reaffirmed my love-hate relationship
with theory in general), the work itself is worth checking out. It's
one of those exhibits that, once you get over the initial onslaught
of competing imagery, you're likely to find a groove you can settle
in and enjoy.