Letter from Santa Fe

February 23rd, 2014  |  Published in *, Features, February 2014

by Jane Durrell

The light!  The light!  No wonder artists, passing through, change their minds and never go away. The town is tucked in an upper layer of mountainous terrain, peaks rising on three sides and the fourth side best essay writing services open toward Albuquerque, sixty-some miles away.

We had come for a winter week in Santa Fe, a family group with a rented house in walking distance of much of what we expected to do. But not in walking distance of everything. Other visits to this pleasurable place had never included a clutch of museums outside of town on what is called Museum Hill, specializing mostly in Native American works. It was my plan to concentrate my looking at what the people who’d been here longest had produced and, more importantly, are producing. Is their art evolving?  I would go to Museum Hill, and to other Native American museum/gallery destinations for the answer.

First stop was the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian and Case Trading Post, 704 Camino Lejo, on Museum Hill. Showing then and still on view as I write, is The Durango Collection of Native American Weaving in the Southwest, 1860-1880. The handsome textiles fill the gallery, their abstract patterns complex and demanding. Downstairs, in what other establishments would call the Museum Shop but here is “the historic Case Trading Post,” can be seen an array of jewelry, baskets, folk art, pottery, and weavings primarily by modern practitioners. I talked with Ken Williams, himself a Native American and manager of the Post.

“The art has to evolve,” he said. “A good tradition is always evolving.” He touched on how traditional quill work had become bead work, once beads were introduced; how rock art started as carved work but moved into being painted or drawn on. “We’re into a boom of contemporary modern work,” he said. “People use traditional values and practices to make the work their own, based on the old.” The Post itself was filled with handsome objects that bore out his claims.

On another day, the Museum Hill destination was the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, with a startling object in the entrance hall that indicated these artists are in no way confined by tradition. This piece, which was in fact a 1974 Triumph automobile, served for a Cincinnati visitor as an eerie reminder of automobiles in the Cincinnati Art Museum, also on view as objects of art. In Cincinnati it was the sculptural qualities of the cars that had put them on display, while in Santa Fe the Triumph had been light-heartedly worked over by a crew of eight Native American artists bent on enjoying themselves and the whole notion of moving about in a car.

The Museum itself has “classic and contemporary Southwestern Indian paintings, sculpture, pottery, jewelry, basketry and weaving.” A tall order, but well thought out and presented. “High quality, well displayed,” say my notes, with some comments about the changing nature of the geometric pottery decorations. Relationships of shape and line and sophistication of design are evidenced early, playfulness develops later. There was much to see here, of top quality.

Also on Museum Hill is found the Museum of International Folk Art, in my experience a different breed from the institutions we’ve been discussing. My experience was with only one section of the Museum, so not applicable to the whole, but made for a unique visit. The Girard Wing contains the huge collection of world folk art formed by Alexander Girard, with art, toys, miniatures and textiles from more than 100 nations. Girard, who worked for the designer Herman Miller, turned his own design skills to the most idiosyncratic museum installation I have ever seen.  Clearly fascinated by the relationships of untutored art, he mixed things liberally but sometimes preferred to keep like things together. He dispensed with labels entirely and set up street scenes, Biblical scenes, a Russian monastery, a slice of life in Morocco, and much more, each explained in the printed guide visitors are encouraged to take with them through the gallery. However, all this is most instructively discussed in the docent tour, if you are lucky enough to be there at the right time, and I was. Also, new multimedia tours delivered on an ipod touch are available at the front desk, for free. Unlike most other museums, in the Girard Wing visitors are encouraged to take photographs.

In the heart of downtown Santa Fe, at 108 Cathedral Place, is the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. This is where I expected my questions about what has happened to native arts to be most fully answered, as its purpose is to “advance the discourse, knowledge and understanding of contemporary Native arts,” but the definition here of Native arts is wide-spreading. I talked with Ryan Rice, chief curator. It’s a space for all native cultures, I learned, national, international, student bodies, other groups. The Museum developed from its original basis into its current position as a school granting BFA and MFA degrees and has, it says, the largest collection of contemporary Native art in the world. The Museum Shop, as might be expected, rewards examination.

Other institutions on my Must See list that in the end weren’t seen included the Pablita Velarfde Museum of Indian Women in the Arts, the most glaring omission, but I had discovered to my own satisfaction that Native American art is a living entity.

Santa Fe is also a center for sophisticated galleries showing international contemporary art. I visited only one of those. Not, actually, to see the international contemporary art but because one member of our party is deep into Japanese studies and spotted Samurai armor on display. He is thirteen, prone to arcane enthusiasms, and had a rewarding visit with the Ellsworth Gallery’s owner/Japanese enthusiast, who was generous in showing him the surprising – in that setting – collection. I sat among handsome abstract paintings by Kathryn Stedham, in the main gallery, while Japanese armor was under discussion in the next room, and thought about the fact that art is, at bottom, the making of things.

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