SITE 20 Years/20 Shows: Spring, SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo de Peralta, 505-989-1199; through May

SITE Santa Fe is celebrating its 20-year anniversary by inviting back artists who have exhibited at the space in the past. SITE 20 Years/20 Shows: Spring, the first in a series of yearlong exhibits, is designed to incorporate the museum’s history in a show that’s more intimate than the broad-ranging biennial that premiered last summer. To those ends, SITE has selected relatively recent pieces from seven artists in order to highlight shifts in their works’ focus since the venue last featured them. The artists in question are Roxy Paine, Deborah Grant, Jessica Stockholder, Rose B. Simpson, collaborators Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, and Gregory Crewdson, who is showing an older but rarely seen series of photographs.

In the lobby, monitors play a series of performance pieces by various artists who have participated in SITE events over the years. The wallpaper in the lobby names every artist SITE has worked with during the last two decades: more than 600 of them, in over 80 shows and nine biennials.

Roxy Paine’s Second Nature, a solo show serving as a mid-career survey, opened at SITE in 2003. Paine’s works shown in 20 Years/20 Shows underscore his current practice of constructing dioramas from materials such as wood, metal, glass, light bulbs, and enamel; to date, he has finished four. Drawing for Control Room Diorama, offers visitors a two-dimensional look at the artist’s plan for a large-scale piece. The diorama featured in the show is bastard octopus, Paine’s arresting vision of a sports arena: a white room that is empty of spectators. Viewers are presented with a number of perceptual dilemmas, not the least of which involves matters of perspective. The diorama is an illusory space, about 13 feet long at its deepest point. Within that space — designed to appear larger than it is — are a wrestling ring, rows of seats and stadium platforms, television monitors, and a bank of eight lights. The objective, distanced view provided is at odds with the raw experience of watching a live match but isn’t dissimilar to watching one on TV. Here, in a museum environment, the observer is yet another step removed. Dioramas, common enough in natural history museums, encapsulate an environment in an enclosed, artistically conceived space. The quiet, monochromatic piece stands in contrast to the bustling, noisy environment of a live match. Paine was inspired by the French philosopher Roland Barthes, who wrote about the wrestling match as a staged spectacle. Here, the pristine room suggests that the match has ended, its patrons long gone, or is soon to begin. Perhaps there is deeper symbolism here, with the match occurring in the minds of viewers as they wrestle with ideas.

Deborah Grant’s series of colorful mixed-media paintings on birch panels, Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy!!, is based on biographical material relevant to African-American artist Mary A. Bell — a Catholic maid who suffered from schizophrenia and was employed by sculptor Gaston Lachaise’s sister-in-law — and to French artist Henri Matisse. Though they were contemporaries, the two represent a chasm in the art world between modernism (Matisse) and “outsider art” (Bell). Crowning the Lion and the Lamb, a large-scale piece from the series that collages imagery related to both lives, is an example of her ongoing Random Select project that pairs dissimilar people, writings, and events in search of correspondences among them. God’s Voice in the Midnight Hours, a series of smaller works, was partly inspired by relating Bell’s Catholicism to Grant’s childhood experiences receiving instruction from a neighborhood rabbi. The religious imagery in these pieces borrows from modernist styles and works, with Grant seamlessly merging these with her own artistic vision — a blend of outsider and fine art.

At first Jessica Stockholder’s assemblage pieces have a haphazard appearance. But once you’ve spent some time with her arrangements of domestic objects, how they relate to painting becomes clear (Stockholder began her career as a painter). Like elements of still lifes, which these compositions essentially are, the free-standing (and, in a few cases, hanging) sculptures are like paintings that have moved beyond the rectangular picture frame to enter three-dimensional space as visually tactile forms. Both the paint that pools over surfaces and the object combinations provide variations in texture. One can imagine her assemblages as an artist’s live-in studio, where paint collects on the floors and gets all over plates, cups, and furniture.

For her installation Alter, sculptor Rose B. Simpson has used clay and steel to create the two towering figurative forms that face each other, as if in dialogue. Like her life-size sculptures in Finding Center, a show at Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art on display last August, Simpson’s Alter is autobiographical, reflecting her interest in personal transformation and spiritual evolution, both often addressed within the context of her Santa Clara Pueblo heritage. When making the ceramic components of her work, the artist employs the same pottery-making techniques her Native forebears developed and used.

The Untitled (Fireflies) series Gregory Crewdson made in 1996 in his home state of Massachusetts and printed in 2006 is a group of 61 images of the luminous insects. These gelatin silver prints are darkly mysterious, atmospheric, puzzling: You’re never quite sure what you’re looking at. Like the elaborately staged photographs for which he’s known, Crewdson’s images approach the surreal, instilling an odd sensation of melancholy mixed with fascination.

As part of the exhibit, SITE is screening two films by collaborators Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley that combine live action with digital animation. Both The Syphilis of Sisyphus, which references French postmodernist writings, and Swinburne’s Pasiphae, inspired by English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne’s unpublished story fragment about the Greek myth of Daedalus and Pasiphae — a Minoan queen with unusual appetites — are steeped in literary traditions. The Kelleys toy with their audiences’ desire for make-believe reality — a phenomenon they put forward as a reflection of every individual’s inflated, constructed sense of self. An adjoining room displays an arrangement of props from the films: a vanity with a hairbrush and other items for grooming, a worktable with tools. Painted black and white, these objects become cartoon versions of themselves. Casting herself in the films, Reid Kelly’s makeup recalls the masks of ancient performance arts to create an effective marriage of comedy and horror. This exhibit alone is worth the price of admission.

SITE 20 Years/20 Shows: Spring is a conceptual undertaking that doesn’t sacrifice aesthetics in the service of ideas. One hopes future iterations of 20 Years/20 Shows will be as visually and intellectually stimulating as this one.

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