I believe that art, like beauty, is largely in the eye of the beholder. What might seem trite to me might be someone else’s treasure. I have strong critical opinions, but I try to enter every art space open to having my perspective broadened or radically altered. This was my outlook on Art Santa Fe, which I attended with my husband, William, on Saturday, July 15. It was the third day of the four-day international fine-art festival at the Santa Fe Convention Center, which has been held in town annually for 17 years. The show is known for including works with a broad array of aesthetics. My assignment was to look for a piece of art, priced at $1,000 or under, that could become the foundation of the collection William and I might start. Said “assignment” was theoretical, as we were sadly not provided with any cash with which to purchase whatever we found to love.

It was quickly clear that $1,000 would only buy us work under a certain size — which was fine because many more expensive paintings were much too large for any wall in our house. There was a fair amount available in the $600 to $1,000 range that interested us, including small paintings of warriors by Shozo Koyanagi of Galley Edel in Japan and a gorgeous green vase by Korean ceramicist Boksik Ji from Icheon Ceramics Village. (Given what I have been seeing lately from Icheon, William and I would eagerly start collecting Korean ceramics.) We also gravitated to paintings by Sergio Valenzuela, known as Valenz, a Guatemalan artist represented by Arte Collective in Miami. His chair and ladder imagery seems to represent levels of awareness and existence, circuslike yet architectural, with a deceptively loose, naive style. Outside of our budget were intricately woven baskets made by indigenous women from the Darien rainforest in Panama, and cheeky steampunk-style clock assemblages by Vandegraaff Gearheardt of Escondido, California. Welde Carmichael, a Santa Fean who was named Art Santa Fe’s 2017 Launchpad Artist, had a few small, evocative abstract encaustic paintings that were well within our budget. And we kept coming back to the booth of Laura Balombini and Red Paint Studio, from Corrales. Balombini’s rich and colorful paintings had a pureness and authenticity of vision I really responded to; of a stylized painting of two men in the dark, she said she’d been inspired by talking to some dancers she’d seen getting off a bus in Albuquerque at night.

The drawback of looking at art in a convention center is unpleasant overhead lighting, but the advantage — and this cannot be overstated — is that Art Santa Fe is air-conditioned. The maze of booths can be difficult to navigate, so we decided to work our way from left to right, stopping in the center to buy bottles of water and look for a place to rest. (The set-up could use more chairs for this purpose.) This might reveal too much about me, but I actively enjoy perusing art so mediocre or outlandish that I make up stories in my head about what inspired it. I like talking about work that is almost good but took a wrong turn. I could say it hones my critical skills, but frankly it’s just a way William and I have fun together. We initially bonded decades ago over a shared leeriness of the lasting effects of Beat poetry on the literary world, and our longtime favorite game is “re-cast this subpar movie we just saw.” 

For better or for worse, Art Santa Fe  is my version of a carnival, where truly  stunning works of art stand side by side with some of the most perplexing creations I’ve ever seen. I could talk at length about the glitter Marilyn Monroe — which is not to be confused with the Marilyn Monroe made from hand-carved, gold-painted block stamps, which was thrilling in its execution — or the high volume of reinvented Frida Kahlo faces committed to canvas, as well as those of John Lennon and James Dean. There was the gaudy mosaic of broken English china and doll heads that gave me a not-unpleasant haunted feeling, and the hot-pink still life of flowers that I loved but bored William, who did not see the painterly layers and emotional chaos that I did. But it was the enormous visage of President Donald Trump that truly had me transfixed.

In The New Long Walk, Ray Jiang, from Houston, has created something so unnerving, sad, technically well executed, and deeply ironic that I hesitate to call it “good” or “bad.” The oil portrait captures Trump’s signature smug expression as well as that of a confused, unsure little boy. It is big and bold and impressive enough that Trump would probably want to hang it in one of his hotels — and in this there is an steely irony, because The New Long Walk has the distinct air of the kind of art often sold in hotel ballrooms for “starving-artist prices.” I really want to believe that my observations and perceptions are accurate — that all of this was purposeful on the artist’s part. I need to use the most extreme words to describe the jumble of emotions I had while looking at it. This is possibly profoundly terrible, I thought, but it is just as likely a work of staggering genius, some preternatural ability of the artist to elicit simultaneous empathy and revulsion from the viewer. And then I wondered if I’d stumbled upon the true meaning of “covfefe,” the leader of the free world’s midnight Twitter-typo that confused the nation earlier this summer. Maybe covfefe means “pity-inducing dangerous absurdity.” (Contacted by email, Jiang said the $40,000 asking price for The New Long Walk will be donated to a school in support of public education.)

I want art to inspire curiosity in me, as well as empathy, wonder, joy, and anger. I don’t really care if I can afford any of it. Art Santa Fe was a personal bonanza that ended with me standing under the fluorescent lights of the convention center, staring into the soul of an American president.   

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