It’s a Jungle


“There, After” by Sophie Clements

Paintings are the enochlophobes of the art world. They come with ropes and bulletproof barriers and entourages of bodyguards who yell “Don’t step past that line, sir!” Even in the smallest of galleries, each painting is given enough of a bubble to allow it an exclusive audience with the viewer. What divas.

El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe‘s multimedia exhibition Currents is, by comparison, full of jungle creatures. A chaotic landscape of sonic distortions and flashing lights envelops the viewer immediately upon entrance through a curtained portal. It’s a video game arcade mixed with a haunted house, with the philosophy of Times Square. These works are willing to step on each others’ toes to get some attention.

My study of video art in college started and ended with the founders of the medium. Let me tell you, things have changed since then. Nam June Paik’s fragmented Portapak documentaries or Vito Acconci’s mumbling monologues are faint memories to these artists. The digital age has ushered in a new era of experimentation, and the best pieces here take the medium for a spin in the spirit of Steina and Woody Vasulka or Peter Campus.

British artist Sophie Clements juggles unstable elements in her stunning video triptych “There, After.” The videos build tension in a synchronized dialogue before scattering into distinct crescendos, bringing to mind the methodically random John Cage on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Each time the fire exploded, there were physical ripples through the audience.

“Collective” by Hisao Ihara

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“Transmission” by James Coker

Hisao Ihara and James Coker boil down their medium to its essential elements. Light ripples and splatters across screen and floor like paint. There’s a challenge in Ihara’s “Collective”, which sends Frank Stella’s stripes into the digital realm and then dissolves them to nothing. In “District [BETA]“, Robert Drummond uses his screens as canvases and asks audience members to paint using their blurry auras:

“District [BETA]” by Robert Drummond

These pieces seem to beg the question: what can painting do that video can’t do better?

When you see Currents (or any of the events on the new media festival’s calendar), try to imagine where these works were born. They were created on humming desktops and bare studio floors, from the cockpits of old swivel chairs and the tops of spindly ladders. Discern for yourself what’s lost or gained by releasing singular works into the teeming world of a multimedia exhibition.

Also, don’t feel bad if you need an intermission in the sunshine.

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“Pool” by Fernanda d’Agostino

MUST-SEE: Fernanda d’Agostino’s “Pool” supposedly explores natural patterns in nature and cycles of the human memory, but I think it’s more about forgetting. Two very different screens show a shadowy female form spiraling about in a swimming pool. We get glimpses of her face, but then she flits away again. It’s wistful and eerie, and there’s a lifeguard chair where you can watch the drama.

P.S. Catch me on Twitter!

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The Unibrow

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Frida at the Barbizon Hotel, Lucienne Bloch, 1931

I spent the first two years of high school mentally plucking the unibrow of Frida Kahlo. One of her famous self portraits was tacked at the back of our Spanish classroom near the only clock, ensuring that my eyes passed by it at least four times a day. Sometimes at the end of class I would pause by the poster and stand nose to nose with the mysterious woman. Anyone who would choose to depict her own fuzzy upper lip in such detail must have been crazy, right?

I see similar reactions to Kahlo nearly every time I introduce people to the 20th century Mexican painter’s work. Their eyes zero in on that curvy caterpillar and their faces scrunch up.

This response is not wrong, it’s human. Frida was like no one else, and acknowledging our urge to reject her is a good way to measure and temper our more divisive tribal impulses. Look into her eyes long enough, and the gulf (or lack thereof, in the case of her brow) will vanish. Frida is tightly tied to Mexican folk art traditions, but she’s also a cultural free floater on the swirling clouds of Surrealism, ready to align herself with anyone who can dream.

By the end of high school, I had become such a Frida fanboy that I’d read her diary. Creepy.

Woman posing in her living room, with Camillo Cienfuegos on the TV; Alex Harris; 2003

The day after my arrival in Santa Fe, I stumbled upon a poster for the Webster Collection’s Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera photography exhibition. I was thrilled.

Chris Webster splits his time between Santa Fe and Hawaii. His gallery is in the old office space for his local real estate company that’s now part of Sotheby’s. The space looks like a Southwestern themed version of the Clue Mansion, complete with a beautiful library that surely has a secret passage.

I marched through the Webster’s open door and bumped into “Woman posing in her living room…” For a moment, I thought it was Frida. The photograph is part of Guggenheim fellow Alex Harris‘ brilliant “The Idea of Cuba” series, shot from 1998 to 2003. It’s a postmodern addendum to the portraits of Kahlo and Rivera in the adjoining room, a way station on our journey back to a time when Kahlo was sheltering (and canoodling with) an exiled Leon Trotsky.

It seems likely that Harris studied portraits of Kahlo before shooting “Woman”; the effortless power of the woman’s gaze, the careful pose thrown off-kilt by a flip of the hair, and the old television showing a grainy image of Cuban revolutionary Camillo Cienfuegos, who died five years after Kahlo, seem like carefully planned references.

On the other hand, Harris’ series shows a country still clutching a promise made by Jose Marti that was strung along by Castro. Perhaps this woman’s resemblance to Frida is not Harris’ design, but a sign of a country caught in the flames of a slow burning sunset that Frida basked in 50 years before.

And bask she does. Diego (that cad) thankfully only makes cameos, leaving Kahlo to preen and pose next to a mirror ball and against sunny walls and gnarled trees. The photographs, which are by several different artists, seem like sketches next to the focused intent of Kahlo’s self portraits, but they give us an unfiltered, engrossing look at the woman’s magical presence.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve reformed since my high school days. Photograph or painting, I would never dream of plucking that unibrow.

MUST-SEE: Explore the gallery to find two Harris shots taken through the windshields of old American-made cars, one in Cuba and one in New Mexico. Compare.

BONUS: Here’s a picture of me at the height of my Frida Kahlo fervor, which will now be on the Internet forever. Oh, and I’m on Twitter!

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Serial Killer

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The Secret Life #12/ The Secret Life #10/ The Secret Life #11, Mark Horst

There are more than 100 galleries on Canyon Road, which is about half the galleries in Santa Fe and a quarter of the galleries in all of New York City. That’s according to a statistician I met on my first real trek down the famed slope (tip #1: on Canyon, follow the Guggenheim rule). For a newcomer like me all of this art added up to chills and heart palpitations. I mean that in the best way possible.

About halfway down, I stopped in the shade of a bronze buffalo and took some deep breaths. I had to face the fact that I couldn’t see all of it, so I decided to follow the Doorway Test. If the thin slice of gallery I could see through the portal looked scrumptious, I would enter. If not, it was time to move on. The Doorway Test isn’t foolproof, but gallery owners do pay particular attention to what falls within that acute sweep of the eyes. Competition is fierce.

I stopped through William & Joseph, Vivo Contemporary, Mirador and Selby Fleetwood, and thought I was done for the day until I spotted “The Secret Life #12″ and its cousins through the door of Canyon Road Contemporary. A cool thing about the Doorway Test is that it helps you strengthen your taste muscles. If you feel a distinct tug, step across the threshold.

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Embrace #46/ Embrace #41, Mark Horst

At first glance, it might seem that Mark Horst is trapped in a cage of his own making. He willfully locks his subjects behind the fuzzy veil of Gerhard Richter and clones them with the machine-like intensity of Andy Warhol. But while Richter explores the frayed edges of history and Warhol the superficiality of material culture with their respective techniques, Horst is aiming closer to the gut.

Horst happened to be in the room during my viewing, and he admitted to the gathered gallery goers that he painted some of his subjects from porn films.

“You see different sides of people when you paint their images multiple times,” he said, pointing at the trio of “The Secret Life” works. “This one is more manufactured, this one is more tender, and this one is darker.”

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The Secret Life #16 (top), I Looked Down #2 (bottom), Mark Horst

Porn stars are people too, after all. Hurdle the enduring societal aversion to the nude male body and stand in front of Horst’s multiples for a while. Allow your mind to rearrange flat surfaces into three dimensional beings who experience pain and joy. Look, and look deeper. These planes are not meant to deflect, but incrementally shade and deepen. Horst is out to assassinate the textbook idea of serial imagery within postmodernism, and it’s fascinating.

MUST SEE: The show includes paintings from Horst’s The Living Hand and What I Cannot Reach Series’ (click here and scroll down). Struggling figures swim through a murky brown atmosphere. It’s chilling.

P.S. Follow me on Twitter? @santafizz


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