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My New Mexico

Whatever the newcomer's disposition toward it all, the place is adamantly a condition in all that she or he can do. But it is as far, finally, from a simple regionalism—some accretion of human place and time—as is the literal moon, despite people have now walked on it. The scale is wrong, so to speak—immense, dry, displacing, vast, inhuman, intently particular. Yet we have been here specifically a long time, thousands upon thousands of years, in fact, and this secularizing aridity was once the ample bed of an ocean as fossils still testify. So who are we—not Indians certainly; hardly the initial chicanos , for instance, Cabeza de Vaca, moved by his own wanderings to write to "Your Majesty": "And who is any of us, that without starvation he can go through the kingdoms of starvation?"[1] It would seem we come here in some peculiar moon-driven loneliness to stave off (starve out) the contemporary devils of distraction, who buy and sell our lives in lieu of ever confronting us more particularly. There is no success here, no matter what star of what firmament has briefly come to rest and dazzle. The trade is elsewhere, and clearly those who make a life here either forgo it or else retreat here from its involvements.

Therefore two classic patrons of this way of life, this concentration upon an art, may well be considered as measure for those here presented. D. H. Lawrence had no patience with any aspect of the old world from which he'd come, and in the new he recognized an

In Place (Albuquerque: Albuquerque Museum, 1982).


unresolvable contest of beliefs because our old way of seeing and believing put us always at a remove from the thing itself, whereas the peoples indigenous, the "Indians," were at one with all the forms of an existence shared with myriad species thereof—or as he puts it in another context: "Everything is very soft, subtle, delicate. There is none of the hardness of representation. They are not representing something, not even playing. It is a soft, subtle being something."[2] Lawrence is prevented from returning to his ranch in Taos (actually in the mountains north of Taos, above a small town called San Cristobal, appropriately enough) because he has tuberculosis and the United States health officials are committed to preventing the admission of anyone so infected with an epidemic disease. So he is recognized as a carrier of plague, physical as well as spiritual, which last he had long known.

More happily, Georgia O'Keeffe, born in Sun Prairie, a small Wisconsin farm town, of Irish, Hungarian and Dutch descent, second child of seven, was always 'local,' and when she comes to live year-round in New Mexico in the late 1940s, she has, in fact, known it since 1917 if only in passing through, but substantially since 1929, when she begins to spend summers in Taos, settling finally near Abiquiu at the Ghost Ranch. But what she says in 1944, in a statement "About Painting Desert Bones," is the point to be recognized:

"I have picked flowers where I found them—
Have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood
    where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood
    that I liked
When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I
     picked them up and took them home too
I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and
    wonder of the world as I live in it"[3]

No matter what particular relations may be so involved—even if any of these artists care at all about their elder loner , who, as they, will (as she always has) take care of herself—it's both the stripping off of particularizing human habit and ego, the investments of life characteristic of an intensive city pattern among others possible, and a Blake-like emphasis upon "the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it . . ." In short, everything is remarkably, even casually, here .


Just so, then, Terry Conway's insistence that: "Painting is seen, or read, when its intensity forces us to participate in the illusion and in a dialogue with a world where the beautiful and the ugly, the common and absurd are indivisible—a world in which history, fantasy and reality, dream and memory are inseparable . . ."[4] The resonances, echoes of surface, which his paintings can manage with their "incomplete erasures"[5] (as one critic put it)—effects of overpainting or wash, or scrims applied with a dry roller—are neither faint nor recessive in a world itself so sparely present, so intently dry about its own admission of either emotion or others. So this surface, as one says, is ground of extraordinary tension, but without a finally willful human confidence to shout out at its company some demand that it enter, touch, take heart, be accessible in more than an illusional sense. It is as if our dream of community had been pressed between large plates of glass and as it "bled," one saw its forms even as they faded—except that here one side is canvas, and the other a proposedly "open" world of being alive. Let me quote his friend, the writer Gus Blaisdell: "Conway's pictures seem to exclude everything that has not been already absorbed into their interior ardency. We are reminded by them of a mutual contingency—there is no need for either of us to be here—a mood which underscores the evanescence of emotions, causing the depiction to waver; as if a consequence of acknowledgement is discovered in the unravelling of monstrous feeling."[6] There is, of course, no explanation—only what this same friend calls "the intelligible silence that is the heart of painting" and what we enter is what we see before us, to be there —when here was all we were.

This intent disposition of spatial context may be of necessity the bulwark kept against the "all outdoors" that can bear in so heavily. A critic of Conway, William Peterson, aptly quotes Robert Smithson: "The desert is less 'nature' than a concept, a place that swallows up boundaries."[7] The point is well made for all who live where one can, not uncommonly, see more than one hundred miles in any direction. It proves a curious reduction of objects in their usual places. Therefore Allan Graham goes into his painting much as did Pollock, recovering a locus for all the possibility of transformation


and recognition that he, humanly, must have for survival. He finds therein not an idea of his intelligence or person but an accounting of his own perceptions, a track of emotional orders. He leaves one place (the insistent, fragmented, intently textured herringbone grids) to find another (the speed of the calligraphy, the incremental echoes of the underpainting)—albeit they are one. He is, in short, what he has defined a painter to be, "a person entirely involved in a two-dimensional surface. He feels it; he loves it; he is sensitive to everything that happens on it. If a person is a painter it doesn't matter what he paints, for the two-dimensional surface is the language he speaks."[8]

In some contrast, the surfaces of Richard Hogan's paintings are apparently more quiet, yet deceptively so, since the gnomic teasing and luminous color of his drawing are fact of an intelligent reduction to that which permits a 'traveling light,' a 'place in mind' discovered in that which is , factually the canvas and the means where-with to mark it. He has lived here a long time and it is, as he puts it, literally home. He is therefore looking out from what others may presume themselves to be looking into, and his is a tradition thereby of being in place, blessed with it, stuck with it, cursed with it, either way. He makes line serve as no direction in or out, but far more as oldtime tally sticks or such markings as one meets with in primordially local places, marking the time and presence of human attention to its amusements, its musing with the edges of where it discovers itself 'on edge,' a place apart. There's an old hymn that goes, "Brighten the corner, where you are . . . ," with reference, I believe, to a lighthouse—and these are many lights, then, moving with whimsical care for that "someone" who wants to bring it all home.

Possibly the impulse most common to these artists is that of localizing, in one way or another, whatever the content of their various activity may prove to be. Clearly, they are somewhere and would like to insist upon it as actuating perception rather than mere social appetite. For example, William Masterson writes of recent work (January 1982): "My latest paintings are derived from figurative, and, lately, landscape sources. Rather than representing these sources, they are a record of a way of looking, as well as a coming to terms with the painting as a unique event. The paintings have become progressively more active with the eye of the viewer


moving about the field. The field color has become more saturated and interacts more with the colored lines. There is an implication of a limited space in these paintings in tension with the actuality of the surface."[9] Again the intentional modesty of the work is significant because it is neither indifferent to the information of a universe, call it, nor inarticulate when so confronted. Rather, it seems the compacting of such information, the sense of "a limited space in these paintings in tension with the actuality of the surface," which clearly knows there is more room, so to speak, yet places "a record of a way of looking" in reductive lines or gestures rather than "representing" an actual or imagined wholeness. One feels a time compacting also, as if there were entirely a pressure to be finished, complete, before all melted into an undifferentiated space forever.

Such preoccupation proves insistent, whether inside the frame of a painting or placed in the box of a room or a yard bounded by fence or edges, however determined. David Anderson speaks of his work as being "within the current movement of the 'new architecturality'"[10] and his sculptures, primarily of steel, are modes of affecting spatial situation much as a wall might, or a table, in short, any thing that locates movement in a necessary focus or pattern. However, they are equally iconographic, particularizing images, but faintly so. For example, it is characteristic of him to drill small holes at random into the plate steel so as to echo the situation of stars. As he says, "The night sky is a dominant reference for me" and with that quiet emphasis, one realizes how far the top and bottom of a usual world have been extended. In contrast, the works themselves have a variable scale and character, ranging from massive steel constructs to others one can hold in a hand.

Less apparent, possibly, is Bill Gilbert's extraordinary authority with abstraction, by which one means not so much the power to take away something as to redistribute the habits of its acknowledgment. Because the materials with which he works are often humanly sweet—adobe, juniper—associations will inevitably occur, especially in a place having so long had the common use of such stuff, be it for house or for sheep pen. But there is no argument. As he has said, "I opted for a material that reflected a closer associa-


tion with the earth and the elements in an attempt to open a more humble dialogue with our world. In my development as an artist, this dialogue has led me away from the enclosed forms of pottery [he was initially a ceramicist] toward a more fluid apprehension of matter in space; matter as a combination of particle and wave. I have chosen the format of installation for its ability to invoke the fragility of the massive, and the impermanence of the permanent, implied by this theory of matter."[11]

Still much remains doggedly exterior to any imagination of human world, and especially in this one. If this is the Wild West of Geronimo and Billy the Kid, it's also that of White Sands and the first atomic tests—equally brutal and ahuman. Because there is so much outside , such a vast, extraneous skin, such a plethora of virtually useless space, one hands it over to whatever can inhabit it, missile ranges, uranium mines, anything to take it away. So most crucial and dear are the persistent, quiet, unaggressive attempts to internalize it, to make the small world of human habits and understanding also undertake it, bring it in. Gloria Graham works in this way, no matter such statement can or can't say what she does. It is her secrets that matter, the tightly bound urns, the insides that don't spill out in a vacancy of self-exposure. It's living with what one doesn't know, is never to know—or has to forget ever knowing. So she stacks, ties, places the things of her art with their half-echoes of function—but what? But what do any of us do here or anywhere. These will keep us good company . . .

Finally, I had not expected our drive to the east of Santa Fe out over the arid mesa to where the condominiums and ersatz town houses are already accumulating as a raw and leaking wealth—to arrive, I say, in such spillage at the particular house of, of all people, a nomadic French photographer who is not an 'artist' as he will tell you, simply one who takes photographs with a classic 50 mm lens, neither more nor less. He is the latest arrival, although his people were among the first of our own to come to the 'new world.' Mon Nouveau-Mexique  . . . So after an excellent lunch with his wife, Kathi, and small son, Shane, Bernard Plossu gave me specific and careful audience, showed me a range of his photographs taken in Africa, Mexico, New Mexico, talked of a mutual friend in Paris, Denis Roche—with Giles Mora and Claude Nori they consti-


tute Ulysses and also produce Les Cahiers de la Photographie , an excellent journal—and of, as he calls them, "the brown lands": "My photographs reveal what I personally relate to: Place, weather, music, sensuality. I like the desert . . . there's nothing better than to be on top of a hill in the desert and look all around you and it's just space, no noise, no time. You have to be at peace with yourself. That emptiness is very good for the soul. We just wanted to keep that 'brown lands' feeling, to be in the desert, and the American desert is one of the most beautiful in the world . . ."[12]

Insofar as eyes are the most primary of human senses, and what world we make with them will be ours of necessity, the eight people of this place, this still new place "New Mexico," are crucial arbiters of whatever vision, whatever sight, we may still be permitted. They have as yet no fashion or school simply to contain them. But the ground they stand on is the edge.


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