ALCOVES 16/17 #5; through Dec. 4

BE WITH ME: A SMALL EXHIBITION OF LARGE PAINTINGS; through April 30, 2017

SMALL WONDERS; through March 12, 2017

CONVERSATIONS IN PAINTING, EARLY 20TH CENTURY TO POST-WAR AMERICAN ART; through April 30, 2017

New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 W. Palace Ave., 505-476-5072, www.nmartmuseum.org

The fifth entry in the New Mexico Museum of Art’s ongoing Alcoves exhibition is a strong showing by five New Mexico-based artists whose works are related by their uncommon use of materials, an emphasis on structural form, and a clear Postminimalist aesthetic. Alcoves 16/17 #5 follows the previous four iterations of the series, continuing the format of five solo artist exhibitions that draw from local and regional contemporary talent, on display for seven weeks. This cycle includes works by Dara Mark, Signe Stuart, Mira Burack, Shaun Gilmore, and Kelly Eckel.

The exhibition derives its name from a number of recessed niches within the main exhibit space on the museum’s main floor. The first of these (or the last, depending on your approach) features photo-collages by Mira Burack in which domestic elements are converted into symmetric, monochromatic, mandala-like forms. Her Laundry Piles I, from her Bed series, is a geometric, flower-like arrangement composed of images of piles of laundry. Burack’s work draws from the mundane and transforms it into something wondrous, but not at the expense of irony. For instance, Sleep Cycle 2, a similar geometric arrangement of pigment prints, this one of bedding, is mounted above a three-dimensional component: a small box of folded linen. The references to the domestic realm are inescapable, but the 2-D component that hangs above the folded linen suggests a dark flower of night opening like a portal — an alluring, but also foreboding, contrast to the idea of the comforts of home. It brings the formalities of domestic duty into sharp relief against the chaos of the unknown.

Kelly Eckel presents the Morphogenic Series, a new selection of photomontages that take elements from photographs of natural history collection specimens and other sources, arranging them into compositions that resemble organic bodily forms. The series references biological evolution and reflects the progression of artistic materiality. These photopolymer etchings, all black-and-white prints, use a modern means of representation while suggesting, and drawing from, a tradition of scientific illustration realized with a technical skill and detail that suggests a long familiarity with such imagery. Eckel’s interest in biology extends to research in genetics, and some of the photographic elements were derived from specimens placed under a microscope. The imperfect symmetry of her print series strikes a nice balance with Burack’s Bed imagery.

Dara Mark’s Elegies, a series of watercolors on sheets of translucent polypropylene, is as fluid as Eckel’s prints are precise and defined. Mark relied on gravity and chance to dictate the flow of the paint that pools and runs to form her nonrepresentational compositions. The translucency and the understated interplay of soft and warm colors lend the works a light but melancholy tone. Elegies was made in response to the death of the artist’s husband, and without even the slightest hint or suggestion of sentimentality, the series evokes the sense of transience, memory, and loss that its title suggests.

Signe Stuart explores pattern and structure through use of ephemeral natural materials. Her wall-mounted fiber pieces, made from unryu paper, are linear, geometric structures that are semi-skeletal in appearance, as though a layer were pulled off to reveal the underlying construct. At the material level, her work reminds one of the elegant simplicity of nature-derived forms and the remarkable complexity that underlies their perceived simplicity.

The largest of the alcove spaces contains the work of Shaun Gilmore. Whether/Weather is a series of drawings of specific locations represented by concentric linear elements, as in a topographical map. Gilmore combines these drawn elements with brilliant flashes of color, confined to vibrant abstracted forms within the composition, that contrast sharply with the mostly monochromatic and black-and-white pieces by the other participating artists. The linear elements from the drawings inspired a series of newspaper-wrapped wire sculptures and a hanging curtain composed of a series of strung-together cut-out shapes made from common recycled materials.

Artists often destroy in order to create and obscure in order to transform. Without making it an explicit theme, these five artists are united in the way they use materials by embracing their inherent qualities. Theirs is a hands-on approach to formalism. The five solo shows, overall, are well-curated selections with a more uniform and consistent aesthetic than previous entries in the series.

The Alcove shows, begun when the museum opened in 1917, are a staple of its current programming, revived in 2012 after a nearly 20-year hiatus. Two more shows will complete the current series run, with one opening on Dec. 10 and the last opening on Feb. 4, 2017.

Several other exhibits opened at the Museum of Art in October, including Be With Me: A Small Exhibition of Large Paintings, a three-person show of large-scale works by Harmony Hammond, John Zurier, and Nick Aguayo. Be With Me is an example of how a curated selection of paintings can achieve its own aesthetic sense outside the context or intention behind any one particular piece in a show. While vastly different from one another in terms of material use and imagery, these selections are in a dialogue spurred by their juxtapositions, like separate elements from a complete body of work. The emphasis, again, is on formal qualities. For contrast, a visit to the museum’s upper floor reveals a surprisingly compelling series of small-scale photographic installations in the exhibit Small Wonders, beautifully arranged in salon style. Curated by the museum’s Katherine Ware, who also curated the latest round of Alcove shows, the exhibit includes works by Susan R Goldstein, David Janesko, Jenna Kuiper, Jan Pietrzak, Liz Stekeete, and Laurie Tümer.

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see a show of works, like Alcoves 16/17 #5, that places emphasis on visual components, materiality, and other formal qualities over thematic or historic contexts. But it can be too easy, which is why season-long, citywide art events based on such formal considerations (like 2015’s Summer of Color) don’t generate much interest on the part of this writer. This time, and in the three shows I’ve mentioned, it works.

Less compelling and less effective, at least for the frequent and semi-frequent visitor to the museum, is the exhibit Conversations in Painting, Early 20th Century to Post-War American Art, which opened on Oct. 29. That’s mainly due to the museum’s habit of recycling the same pieces for many of its exhibits. Of course, a museum wants to showcase the best works from its collection as much as possible, but such an approach feels more appropriate for long-term than short-term shows. I’ve praised the museum in the past for emphasizing seldom-seen selections from its holdings when appropriate, but despite some stunning work — such as a remarkable still life by Hans Hofmann — too many pieces here have been seen in other contexts. It seems almost as though the curators suppose that a simple rearrangement of paintings, a few replacements here and there, and a little thematic exposition, can make for a whole new show. While New Mexico’s significance to modernism and postwar art can’t be overstated, works by Marsden Hartley, Stuart Davis, Agnes Pelton, Frederick Hammersley, John Sloan, and Georgia O’Keeffe — all of them important to the conversation — get shuffled around like so many magnetic poetry word tiles. One ultimately remembers the works, having seen them so many times before, but not necessarily the contexts — which is a disservice to why such works are displayed in the first place. The selection here is strong, but it seems like well-trod territory. Frequent visitors, however, can have a fresher, more engaging experience with the contemporary works in the other exhibits, while new visitors will, I think, be delighted with the overall quality of the offerings on view.