Through Jan. 29, New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 W. Palace Ave., 505-476-5072
It isn’t just the popularity of the New Mexico Museum of Art’s Alcoves shows — an on-again, off-again exhibit series that was revived in 2012 after nearly 20 years — that prompted the museum to do it again with another round of artists for 2016 and 2017; it was a nod to the museum’s exhibit template at the time it was founded. The series, in which five local and regional artists present their work in solo installations for a period of seven weeks, was inspired by a model that began when the museum first opened in 1917 in which artists could sign up for small solo exhibits in recessed spaces on the museum’s ground floor. The shows were revived in 2012 for the first time since the early 1990s, and again in 2016. The current yearlong program is being held in advance of the museum’s 2017 centennial.
The Alcoves show, now in its sixth iteration, has showcased contemporary works in a variety of media by midcareer artists. The past few exhibits in the series have worked well as solo installations, but the installations are also effective in conversation with one another. The same is true of #6, which features installations by Jo Whaley, Chris Collins, Christy Georg, Valerie Roybal, and Jami Porter Lara. Merry Scully, who has taken on the task of curating most of the Alcoves shows, has given each artist a chance to make their own statement, resulting in some powerful and provocative commissioned works. As with the previous Alcoves, there is no theme around which the show is organized, but leitmotifs surface by happenstance. One of the delights of the series’ run has been seeing what unplanned themes and associations are revealed. In this instance, Roybal embraces vintage and salvaged materials and so do Collins and Georg. Recycling everyday materials for use in art is in vogue among regional artists, and there has been a trend in recent years for artists to seek inspiration in, and exalt, the vernacular, particularly in the mediums of sculpture, assemblage, and photography.
Collins’ Discard Series is an installation of salvaged objects he found in the desert regions of New Mexico, which the artist then partially gilded in copper leaf, leaving some surface areas untouched. In his work, the embrace of the colloquial is most apparent. The wall-mounted objects — a rusted and decaying metal drum, a crushed metal pail, and similar artifacts so ravaged by time that their original purpose is not always plain — are eye-catching because of the sharp contrast between the dull, rusted, and pitted surfaces and the areas covered in copper, which lends them a gleaming majesty. Because his interventions are minimal, one senses that he isn’t transforming trash into objects of art so much as acknowledging the beauty that resided in the forms to begin with, accentuated by years of deterioration from exposure to the elements.
Georg repurposes everyday objects, as well, but transforms them into inventive kinetic sculpture. She is showing two of her mechanical constructs: Wait/Hate (for Nauman), and History Lesson, the latter being a device Georg used in a performance piece while in residence at De Fabriek in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, in 2015. History Lesson is a working phonograph mounted on a single-wheeled contraption similar to the design of a wheelbarrow and powered by the gears when pushed. In her performance — photo documentation is included in the exhibit — she moved the device around while wearing roller skates. The piece has two oversized cylinders to broadcast the music, jutting like the chrome exhaust on a motorbike and giving the rough kinetic sculpture, which incorporates simple materials such as unvarnished wood, antique gears, and a bike chain, a steampunk appearance. Wait/Hate (for Nauman) references, it seems, multimedia artist Bruce Nauman’s penchant for juxtapositions of text with opposite meanings. These oppositions occur in Nauman’s 1985 lithograph Live or Die, which is in the museum’s collection, and other titular wordplay that reveals subtle correspondences in language, as in his 1970 neon anagram None Sing Neon Sign, and his 1971 lithograph Raw/War. Georg’s Wait/Hate is a machine that types out the word “hate” on four spindly typewriter bars, one for each letter. The blurry text, which billows out onto the floor in a continuous scroll when the machine is in use, creates a tension between object and viewers, who expect perhaps something more profound than a message that says “hate.” But consider that it is the viewers, potentially, operating the machine, producing every instance of the printed word. The sculpture gives one pause to consider what we put out into the world, and to reflect on the frustrations of the artistic process: the wait, for example, for inspiration.
Roybal’s installation Inevitabilities, made between 2008 and 2016, is a series of embroidered images on canvas, each one made using the tools of the craft and left unfinished — each canvas still secure inside the circular frame that holds it in place while it is stitched. Roybal undermines expectations by using the craft to make compositions inspired by geometric forms in nature, referencing the microscopic world of molecular life, particularly the process of cell mutation, but also insects. One piece depicts the anatomy of a set of human lungs. In her works on paper, she uses collage with an intricacy similar to the antique illustrations of flora and fauna done by the naturalists of the 19th century and before. Early naturalist depictions of biological specimens and hand-drawn illustrations of archaeological relics often showed them divorced from their natural context and drawn as solitary, free-floating parts of a larger composition of objects or specimens. Look closely at Roybal’s All That Is, a mixed-media collage that riffs on this convention, and you see a combination of human-made objects and natural forms grouped together because of similarities in their geometric structure or shape — this is not unlike the way biologists created their morphologies in the 19th century. While both the domestic realm and the realm of science provide material for her subject matter, Roybal lends her compositions a broader context with sly references to art history, as in Saturn Man, an image of man in a suit whose head is the planet Saturn, which recalls the absurd conflations of the Surrealists. Most of Roybal’s work is made using text and imagery culled from books and magazines, handwritten letters, and other sources.
Photographer Jo Whaley, too, is repurposing materials as the basis for new works. Her Stage Stills series was created at the Scottish Rite Center in Santa Fe, using the center’s historic theatrical backdrops and props. She invests each image with a narrative sense, and although they are mostly devoid of people, a human presence is felt throughout. The series developed out of an ongoing project in which Whaley has been documenting Scottish Rite Centers and their interiors for a forthcoming book. The backdrops were originally painted by artist Thomas G. Moses in the early 20th century. In her photographs, Whaley creates a dialogue between Moses’ historic works and her own contemporary practice.
Porter Lara’s 108 Repetitions is an installation of ceramic pieces, uniform in structure — all of them squat, black shapes based on the form of a plastic bottle — but achieving a high degree of variance within that basic uniformity. Each bottle bears some characteristic that differentiates it from the rest: Some have dented sides, some are more squat than others, and some of the necks bend at odd angles. Each clay bottle has been rendered in small scale. This is the kind of intriguing sculpture that aesthetically stands on its own with its smooth and pleasing tactile forms, engaging the intellect with its possible associations to people and diversity, consumerism, and materialism, perhaps in relation to spirituality (108 is the number of prayer beads on a Buddhist mala, which are counted off in a series of repetitions during meditation).
With two solid years of mostly strong works, the Alcoves shows belie past criticisms of the museum as an aloof institution, inaccessible to local artists who haven’t made a national name for themselves. At a time when, more and more, the museum has relied on its historic collections as the basis for its shows, few exhibitions have shown that the NMMoA is indeed dedicated to promoting and engaging with the local arts community as much as their Alcoves shows do. When Alcoves 16/17 closes (the seventh and final part opens on Feb. 4), it will have given 35 artists solo exhibitions at the institution. Scully deserves kudos for a series that, particularly this year, has been of a consistently good quality.
On Friday, Jan. 6, at 5:30 p.m., the artists of “Alcoves 16/17 #6” discuss their work in a free talk at the New Mexico Museum of Art (107 W. Palace Ave., 505-476-5072).