THE ALCHEMY OF DECAY: AN ARTISTIC EXPLORATION, through Dec. 9, New Mexico State Capitol Rotunda Gallery, 490 Old Santa Fe Trail, 505-986-4589
It’s encouraging to live in a city that respects its artists, and at the State Capitol, The Alchemy of Decay is a showcase for five who live and work in Santa Fe. The theme of the show, which premiered in 2015 at the Peterson Student Center at St. John’s College, draws inspiration from the idea of the artist as alchemist, exploring materiality and transformation. Each of the five artists included in the show — Bill Skrips, Amy Parrish, Ann Laser, Patricia Pierce, and Marilyn Chambers — are showing a broad selection of recent works. The installations, which command a lot of space, take advantage of the capitol rotunda’s capacious interior, but are arranged to be in dialogue with one another.
The alchemical process of turning base metals into precious ones, which some see as a metaphor for spiritual transformation, is reflected conceptually in the crafting of all art, but is here expressed through the use of found objects and recycled trash, repurposed for the sake of art. “For me, it was about taking something that’s decaying and bringing value back to that object,” Laser, a mixed-media artist, told Pasatiempo. “As I’m aging, I’m more interested in how something that is considered worthless and not so important anymore can be made into something else.”
Laser is showing monoprints, mixed-media wall hangings, and a sculptural installation, High Tea, that consists of a used and dirty tea service and a hanging tapestry made from used and dried teabags arranged in a grid and mounted on stretched canvas. The installation draws on the idea of consumption and the nature of tea as a nourishing substance, physically and creatively. Laser doesn’t so much transform the materials that make up her wall hangings as let them retain the attributes of their former use. The colors are derived from natural tea-leaf stains, with minimal use of paint. The Magic of Tea, for instance, is composed of mostly neutral-colored teabags enlivened by some that are stained a vibrant magenta. Laser asks tea drinkers from all over the world to send her their dried teabags as part of her ongoing exploration of tea as an artistic medium.
“I always looked at the artist as a perfect simile for the alchemist,” Skrips, who is showing a number of sculptural works, told Pasa. “The alchemist is a trickster as well as somebody who says they’ll turn dross into gold.” His sculptures are absurdist configurations of figures made from rough-hewn wood, scrap metal, and found objects that give them a kind of steampunk appearance. The Supplicant, Splint, and Siege Tower all have a medieval rusticity. His assemblage works combine figurative elements and man-made objects into whimsical hybrid forms — they are contemporary pieces with a folk-art flavor.
Parrish takes a more conceptual approach to the exhibit’s theme with a presentation of monoprints, sculpture, and installation art. Her Laundry Day is a series of monoprints depicting clothing that hangs from a laundry line by clothespins. Her work touches on themes of domesticity and memory, exploring the persistence of memory as something to be excavated, like a buried secret. An article of clothing becomes a repository for the history of its wearer, which is reflected in patterns and imagery that seems to emerge through a decaying of surface forms. Some of her displayed sculptural works include pieces made from altered books, found objects, and thread, inviting comparisons between story and object history, which is perhaps a metaphor for personal biography, as in her Ode to a Blue Dress.
Parrish is not the only artist who works with altered books. Pierce, who, like Laser, is represented by Vivo Contemporary, is among the most well-known artists in Santa Fe working in that genre, and a number of her book-art pieces and assemblages are included, along with altered books by Chambers. Their works are wildly different. Pierce brings an elegant refinement to the book as her principal medium, transforming the surface appearance of dusty old tomes into aged but august-looking works of beauty that exist as finished sculpture. Chambers makes assemblages as well as book art, investing her works with a sense of the antique. For example, her assemblage piece Birds and Beast is made from an old suitcase affixed on the interior and exterior with found objects, such as china dolls, toys, vernacular photographs, and an old grooming kit; the entire piece looks like something you might find stashed in an attic, like a chest full of old memories.
The Alchemy of Decay, an artist-curated show, was the brainchild of Pierce and Chambers, who invited the other artists to participate. The works included speak to one another and work well together overall, seeming like components of a single, large-scale installation. None of the artists take the theme too literally, variously interpreting art as alchemy in ways that are pertinent to their individual visions and practice.