santa fe contemporary

by zane fischer


Trains, it turns out, are taller than you’d think. Santa Fe learned this recently when an overpass spanning the interstate highway that connects the city to the rest of the world had to be destroyed in order for a new, bio-diesel commuter rail line to barrel down the dusty median between lanes. The overpass was reliable and convenient, still in good nick. No particular need to knock it down, save the march of progress.

When the railroad first expanded west into New Mexico in 1880, it didn’t stop in the old adobe state capital of Santa Fe, but instead took the more practical path through Albuquerque and beyond. Before the train came through, Santa Fe had been a prosperous city, a regular wagon stop, but the railroad proved an economic boon for the rest of the state, largely at Santa Fe’s expense. The city salvaged its vitality by becoming a noted cultural destination. First, for viewing Native American jewelry, pots and weaving, next for Spanish Colonial craftsmanship, and eventually as an escape for intellectual writers and modern artists. Now, 128 years later, Santa Fe is finally getting its train. And, as custom appears to dictate, the city is going through something of a renaissance.

For example, Santa Fe, with its mud-boned buildings and pueblo-inspired architecture, is home to one of the nation’s oldest historic preservation ordinances-styles are rigidly controlled in designated districts-but in 2008, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee was compelled to create a new award in order to celebrate a decidedly modern building. The “urban design within an historic context” award was given to architect Davendra Narayan, contractor for the rehabilitation of old industrial buildings into gallery spaces in what is now called-surprise-the city’s Railyard District. Situated at the head of a lonesome, utilitarian spur off of the original railroad, the Railyard is at the heart of Santa Fe’s revival. And the heart of the Railyard is SITE Santa Fe, host of the only truly international biennial art exhibition within the United States.

SITE was inaugurated in 1995. Its initial identity as a biennial-producing institution metamorphosized in the wake of early success into that of a year-round presenting, non-collection holding, kunsthalle. Since that time, SITE has presented over 40 significant exhibitions, and six biennials curated by Klaus Ottmann, Robert Storr, Dave Hickey, Rosa Martinez, Francesco Bonami and Bruce Ferguson. The 2008 biennial, simply called “Lucky Number Seven,” is curated by Lance Fung, an art world darling who is so fast-paced, so personally stylized, so quick-witted, and so endlessly overbooked, that he may quite possibly be from the future. Fung’s curatorial strategy is not the intellectually burdensome tripe that frequently consumes ink in the pages of exhibition catalogs, but the equally risky gambit known as the gimmick. He is famous for the “Snow Show,” which he conceived in 2000 and executed in 2004 and 2006, and which demanded solely that the work be created primarily in snow or ice. One of his future exhibitions is premised on the work being underwater.

“Some people criticize me for it,” says Fung. “And that’s fine. I work with gimmicks because people like gimmicks. Gimmicks work.” That said, Fung’s only real gimmick for “Lucky Number Seven” is to cede absolute control to an international collaborative of curators. His initial proposal was based on the premise that SITE was such a unique organization within the United States that the next biennial should effectively connect it to like institutions worldwide. Counting SITE, 18 organizations comprise the collaborative, including Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Each organization selected an artist or artists from its own region to be among the participants, although Fung did retain veto power. If it may be argued that “Lucky Number Seven” has any additional gimmickry, it would be in its rejection of the commoditization that so commonly commingles with big biennials. In a nod to SITE’s origins (works were originally intended to always be site-specific), Fung has decreed that each work must be made in Santa Fe, rather than exported from any particular artist’s cookie jar. Further, works must be dismantled or “recycled” into the community at the exhibition’s end, rather than being allowed to exist as potentially valuable art objects. In one exceedingly apropos project, Fabien Giraud and Raphaîl Siboni will take a classic western bronze sculpture, melt it down, and recast it in a modern, regional interpretation. At the show’s end, the artists’ vision will return to the foundry and the same material will again be cast as the original bronze and returned to its owner.

Fung’s penchant for collaboration has infused the whole of Santa Fe and numerous organizations will be hosting SITE projects or participating in biennial festivities. Martí Anson, from Spain, will painstakingly reproduce a factory building from his homeland on Santa Fe’s Museum Hill, amidst the likes of the Museum of International Folk Art, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and Laboratory of Anthropology. Mexican artist Erick Beltrán will be placing mosaic “tombs” at varied locations throughout the city for passers-by to stumble upon. Shi-Qing, a Beijing-based artist with roots in Mongolia, will be accompanied by a cook from the famed steppes and will haunt Santa Fe with a steaming food cart full of New Mexicolian fusion foods, deconstructing the manner in which foods resist colonialism.

Most of the artists will have at least some representation in SITE’s building on the Railyard. The entrance and interior of the space has been designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to incorporate an unconventional series of ramps and viewing platforms. Some works, like LA artist Piero Golia’s invitation to fall backward off one of the high ramps, will have dynamic action but static locations, while other projects will literally snake through the entire building. One such continuous touchpoint will be a ceramic work by Rose Simpson, Eliza Naranjo-Morse and Nora Naranjo-Morse. Selected to participate through IAIA, the three Native American artists have also served to temper the cowboy ‘n Indian fantasies that other artists may have arrived with. “They’ve been an extraordinary bulwark against cliché,” says SITE’s Phillips Director Laura Heon.

A few of the 2008 biennial projects will sit outside or upon the exterior of the building, again challenging Santa Fe’s short, brown stereotype. Notable facades have dressed the building before-in 2001 both Gajin Fujita and Jim Isermann added external elements to the building-but this year such elements will fit into the greater context of the Railyard Park. Although still nascent (the park will be largely complete and usable by the end of July), the park has been designed by renowned landscape architect Ken Smith and public artist Mary Miss, who have gone on to collaborate on Irvine, California’s Great Park. Many of the park’s key components will be in place by the opening of “Lucky Number Seven” and will bosom SITE’s building in a miniature pieta, akin to Central Park’s embrace of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Railyard Park, a venerable Farmer’s Market that inaugurates a new building across from SITE Santa Fe this summer, and El Museo Cultural, a community culture center, will provide additional draw to the new gallery district. Anchor galleries, which have made the leap to the new district from Santa Fe’s more traditional Canyon Road, include Box Gallery, William Siegal Galleries, Gebert Contemporary, Tai Gallery and James Kelly Cont
emporary. Kelly will host his gallery’s first exhibition of work by Roy McMakin, a conceptual tinkerer and plumber of haunting domestic inversions in both object and photography.

The Zane Bennett Gallery has just completed the intensive renovation of an historic Railyard building and will host photographer Donald Woodman’s incisive exposures on the state of the American West. But with nearly 200 galleries wedged into a 34.5 square mile city of 72,000 people, even contemporary galleries find unexpected geographic niches to fill. Some, like Chiaroscuro, Turner Carroll, Eight Modern, and Cruz Gallery remain ensconced on Canyon Road. Others, such as Charlotte Jackson, LewAllen Contemporary, Photo-Eye, Andrew Smith, Eileen Braziel, Linda Durham, and St. Louis-based newcomer William Shearburn choose to center around or limn the downtown area. From East to West, the city is bracketed by the Center for Contemporary Art and Dwight Hackett Projects, one a non-profit and the latter a commercial gallery, but both among the most thoughtful and consistent presenters of quality work in Santa Fe.

CCA’s key summer exhibition in its recently opened Muñoz Waxman Gallery will be by Tom Ashcraft and will include, among other things, kinetic sculpture powered by Jupiter. No, really. Dwight Hackett will infuse its summer schedule with quiet authority by exhibiting Barry Le Va. Astute observers during Santa Fe’s summer art season will find younger locals haunting alternative venues with names such as Humble, High Mayhem, and Meow Wolf. Adventuresome visitors are likely to stumble into exhibitions in appropriated train cars, seedy bars and converted basements. Technology junkies may find disciplines merging (and sometimes clashing) at Agua Fria Street’s Santa Fe Complex, where complex science and cultural creativity burble like suspect chemistry experiments waiting to prove out accidental genius. The mysterious Zipp Gallery, more than a dozen miles east of Santa Fe, surrounded by thick pine and mountain lions, will be quietly hosting a cargo container’s worth of smuggled Cuban works, brought cautiously into the U.S. one at a time.

In Santa Fe, summer is like this. There are no bright lights and no big city, but the action never ends. The evening air, velvety with high desert light, is sumptuous on the skin, which is a good thing, because banquet-, vernissage- and cocktail party-hopping can otherwise have a noticeable aging effect on the body. If one were to consider summer-long events at the Santa Fe Art Institute, the Santa Fe Opera and Symphony, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, The Lannan Foundation, and the fact that 2008 marks the 100th anniversary of New Mexico’s state museum system, it could begin to feel as culturally daunting to experience as any cosmopolitan center on earth. To also visit the Harwood Center in Taos or to examine Albuquerque’s 516 Arts, Richard Levy Gallery and National Hispanic Cultural Center would be madness, not to mention the l’il ol’ international art fair.

Santa Fe appears to be at the beginning of a long roll. As ripe and rich as the summer of 2008 is, the spectrum of possibility is greater on the horizon. A new, state-of-the-art convention center will be complete by next summer. That commuter train, the Railrunner, is expected to travel between Santa Fe and Albuquerque by the end of the year. A new State History Museum is wrapping up construction downtown. More importantly, taco trucks and independent food cart vendors have increased six-fold in the past two years, and if the prevalence of street food is not a sure indicator of a true cultural capital, I don’t know what is. Still, as with any city leading such a charmed life, there are problems. While the city has the highest living wage and lists among the lowest unemployment in the nation, that doesn’t make housing any more affordable for average citizens, or working artists in particular. Water is scarce. The battle between sleepy, old Santa Fe and a new, globally savvy Santa Fe can be bitter, with neighbors expressing their differing opinions through harsh words, slashed tires and court cases. These are common problems in a unique city which has as much hope as anywhere of generating uncommon solutions. Change is inevitable, but not necessarily undesirable and certainly not unmanageable. And if you’re going to make an omelet, especially one with a train, you’re going to have to break a few overpasses.

art santa fe: an annual affair

ART Santa Fe, the international art fair originally conceived as a biennial event to run in tandem with SITE Santa Fe’s premier exhibitions, will move to annual status beginning this July. During a transition period, SITE Santa Fe actually went two years between “biennials” instead of one and has been off schedule with the fair ever since. ART Santa Fe director, Charlotte Jackson, says it will be beneficial for everyone to have the fair and SITE Santa Fe’s biennial to happen the same year (the fair opens a month after SITE this year, but will probably run in tandem in 2010). But the real reason for moving to an annual platform, she says, is that exhibitors were asking for it. “People used to say that an annual fair wouldn’t work here, but it is nothing but gangbusters- the walls will be popping,” Jackson says. “I was kicking and screaming when we first considered making it an annual event, but I think it’s really working out well,” she adds. “The jury has been very discerning and the quality of galleries is exceptional. We also already have a very interesting waiting list for next year.” More than 50 dealers from the U.S., Europe and Asia will participate in ART Santa Fe 2008, to be held at El Museo Cultural from July 10-13. Dean Sobel, director of Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum, will give a keynote speech.

Another fair-style event, dubbed PROJECT, was slated to open in tandem with SITE’s biennial, but organizers delayed the undertaking after realizing that more time would be needed to properly arrange the logistics. If PROJECT, or any other fair comes to town in 2009, Jackson claims the competition won’t bother her. “All it does,” she says, “is add to the excitement and the mix.”

To download a PDF of the Santa Fe Supplement 2008, please click here.