Spotlight: Taos

From Taos Moderns to Light and Space pioneers to today’s spiritually inclined or Pop Surrealist practioners, the mood in this New Mexico art enclave tilts toward inclusiveness

1
431
“Perception,” 2016, KC Tebbutt, Rice paper, minerals, encaustic, oil on canvas, 48″ x 48″
©KC Tebbutt, Photo: Untitled Fine Art

Contemporary Art in Taos today is characterized by a three-part stylistic confluence. You’ve got your old school Light and Space guys from Los Angeles’ Ferus Gallery, who along with Dennis Hopper got their custom bikes and hot-rods the hell outta Venice back in the day. ( It just got too whatever, man.) You’ve got the tributary of Taos Transcendentalism that stretches to include Georgia O’Keeffe even, and cuts a swath of tradition in Taos art as deeply as the Rio Grande Gorge does through Taos county. And for your third eye, Street Art (thank Banksy) and other recently established modes jostle under the Pop-Surrealism moniker.

The reality is that the economic collapse of 2008 shook Taos somehow more than larger established art centers. That, along with the still relatively recent deaths of ceramicist Ken Price and Dennis Hopper left the town feeling a little bereft the past few years, but as winter cedes to spring, there seem reasons to believe that this perennial art colony is getting set to branch and bloom again. One of the latest innovations this year at Taos’ longstanding Fall Arts Festival (held around the equinox) was the pop-up projection night by Paseo Project, co-sponsored by Santa Fe’s new-media masters Currents and the local Harwood Museum of Art.

The current Harwood Museum series of exhibitions, in place until May of 2017, are rich in references to the town’s multiple pasts. Ken Price’s Death Shrine 1 installation, from the Happy’s Curios series, is on longterm loan from a private collector and the permanent “chapel” to Agnes Martin is always worth the pilgrimage. The impact of the Northern New Mexican desert upon School of Paris Modernism can be traced in “Continuum: Beyond Picturesque,” a survey of early to mid-century works by the likes of Joseph Henry Sharp, E. Irving Couse, Oscar E. Berninghaus and other local light lovers. “Continuum: Brave New World” assembles intriguing responses from the Harwood’s collection to the formalism of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. Highlights include a small Agnes Martin, and Robert C. Ellis’ 1972 painting Llano Quemado Number Six. “Continuum: Light, Space and Time” umbrellas the other Continuum exhibitions and encapsulates the whole of the century, running like snowmelt down the street toward the next subject.

Larry Bell remains the most influential artist in town. When he’s not installing bronzes in Hong Kong or participating in the Venice Biennale (or this year’s Whitney Biennial), he can be found at work in his studio at the bottom of Ledoux St. the historic center of the Taos scene. The list of artists who’ve kept studios over the years includes Dine artist R.C. Gorman, and draftsman Wes Mills. Bell’s space houses a gigantic vacuum machine used to alter his signature planes of glass with graduated chromatic, iridescent, and/or mirrored coatings, though his focus these days is largely on his monumentally scaled wiry bronze figures which he draws via computer animation.

“The Monument,” circa 1950’s, Louis Ribak, Oil on masonite, 48″ x 72″
Photo: courtesy 203 Fine Art

A fellow California Light and Space artist who ended up in Taos is Ron Cooper. Cooper could be described as the most eclectic of the Ferus stable. Like so many of the SoCal guys who came up in the 1960s, some of Cooper’s earliest artistic experiences involved the customizing of “roadsters and speedsters” and basically he’s never stopped. He’s still producing his Vertical Bars for his New York Gallery; gorgeous, translucent oblongs of light and color that threaten to defy perception and disappear altogether. But he also creates and races (!) chopped model-T dune buggies, of which he has quite a few. If that weren’t enough, he creates Mexiware, derived from smashed, plastic bottles he finds in Mexico, occasional ornamental serigraphs, and oversees the production and distribution of Del Maguey, a line of arguably the finest and best-selling Mezcal Mexico makes, which Cooper, eyes alight, calls his “liquid art.” He’s currently designing
a special “Boolay’” bottle, based on the African gourd containers that found their way to both Mexico and Japan, in black clay and crystal to celebrate the brand’s turning 21.

Locally, Hulse Warman Gallery best presents Perceptualism. This winter’s shows by Michelle Cooke and August Muth, respectively, are stunners. Cooke’s work was recently featured in the Las Cruces Museum of Art’s excellent “Transforming Space-Transforming Fiber” exhibition on the opposite end of the state. The lovely paradox of an engaging formalism built on ephemerality is Cooke’s finest achievement. She’s best known for minimalist installations of wafer-thin glass panes, often no more than an inch or two in dimension, that she meticulously silicones, on one edge, directly to the wall perpendicular to the surface. The real visual appeal derives from the resultant complex patterns of cast shadows and refractive incidents depending on the light and space (again). The brilliantly luminous holography of August Muth, displayed in the gallery’s annex, represents the cutting edge of abstract art and optics. Muth’s Santa Fe studio houses an enormous two-ton concrete table and a deadly laser capable of burning out retinas in seconds! This is the mad alchemist’s lab where he constructs his 3-D images in which arcs and hoops of brilliant colored light appear to hover in front of illuminated geometries while subtle images of labyrinths and arcane symbologies emerge as the viewer shifts perspectives.

A similarly opulent light and color hit can be had in the slumped glass grids by artist Peggy Griffey on display in the Untitled Fine Art Annex. These colorful freestanding glass panels can glow like stained glass in the sunshine, or read like painterly compositions. David Anthony Fine Art (DAFA) also makes it a point to carry contemporary glass. Recent pieces on display by artist Marty Kremer particularly impress. DAFA
is one of the largest and most ambitious spaces on the current Taos scene, and besides glass, shows numerous painters and photographers, both local and far-flung. Painter Peter Opheim’s bizarre animalized entities in Torches and Black Lantern are especially compelling, and the main exhibition (through Febuary) of largescale mixed-media collage-paintings by Kate Rivers is excellent. Rivers works in found paper scraps and (severely) re-purposed books, which she slices and dices according to snippets of content and reassembles into stripes of abstraction or images, variously themed bird’s nests, that can be enjoyed imagistically from a few paces, or read as found poetry as one gets closer.

Poetry can also be found at Ortenstone Delattre Fine Art on Bent Street. Arts writer, novelist, and painter Pierre Delattre shows poetic pictures and prints structured on a unique iconography of Jungian archetypes and a syncretism of varying visual languages. In Blessing of the Birds, a robed and winged figure whose head is the sun and the moon merges with a winter landscape dotted with bird forms. The poet-painter as shaman has deep roots in Taos tradition.

A few decades before the Perceptualists arrived from the coast, UNM Professors Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram founded the Transcendental Painting Group. As a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1913, Jonson had been particularly impressed by the Kandinskys he saw when the famous Armory Show came to town. Works by Jonson and other mid-century Modernists of the region are on exhibit at 203 Fine Art, Taos’ brightest white cube. Recently relocated to a high-ceilinged space on Gusdorf Road, and open by
appointment, the gallery splits its focus between Taos Moderns like Andrew Dasburg, Florence Miller Pierce, Lawrence Calcagno, Louis Ribak and Beatrice Mandelman to list a few, and more contemporary figures like the aforementioned Ron Cooper, encaustic artist Sandra Lerner, Neo-Expressionist painters Tom Dixon and Neo-Taos-Transcendentalists Shaun Richel and Eric Andrews.

The spiritual in art gets an additional boost at Untitled Fine Art’s main exhibition space, highlighting works this winter of Kimberly Webber, K.C. Tebbutt, Antonio Arellanes, and Nicolas Gadbois. The later presents cast chromatic concrete panels that read alternately like abstract reliefs, tablets in an extraterrestrial tongue, or aerial topologies of a futuristic infrastructure. Antonio Arellanes could be picturing the mandala-based tapestries of tomorrow land’s civilization in his expansive, metallically pigmented sacred geometry paintings. K.C. Tebbutt’s work is intriguing because of the wide-ranging sources of his artistic practice, and his use of LEDs to backlight his paintings. Even without them, his mandala forms appear to be lit from within; but once you plug it in, it begins to move, as the rings of LEDs behind it pulse and change tone, allowing the various layers of the mixed media painting (on rice paper mounted on canvas) to gradually emerge. As Tebbutt observes, mandala forms throughout cultures induce the eye into “the process of continual transition between internal and external perception.” His contemporary mandalas are mystic portals to metaphysical adventure.

Kimberly Webber’s female figures blend similar references to sacred geometries with her own clear love of Renaissance drawing and painting. Both she and Tebbutt begin their paintings with intricately folded pieces of rice paper, which are dipped in ink and then unfolded to create a palimpsest of patterned marks, a process honed under calligraphic master Lin Chien-Shih, who introduced them both to the rice paper geometry, or “oracle bones” calligraphy, that has been the ground for their own work ever since. Having also studied Nihonga style painting, which migrated along with Buddhism from China to Japan in the 7th century, and classical oil painting in Florence, Italy, Webber produces images of liminal female figures, moving between spirit realms and next bardos. The mood can conjure the works of the great Remedios Varo, though the technique summons the spirit of Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

This strain of work is possible due to Taos’ newest visual vernacular, the scourge that has nearly taken over its High Art hosts, making them all googly-eyed, feral, buxom and elastic. Call it Pop-Surrealism or Slang Aesthetics, à la Robert Williams; it was spawned in Taos by The Harwood Museum’s 2014 exhibition “¡Orale! Kings and Queens of Cool,” and has now set up shop in the Orale! Gallery, threatening the town’s good taste like a gentle Godzilla. Rabbett Before Horses Strickland, an Ojibwe painter, tops the stable with his monumental figures in mythic dreamscapes that have as much to do with Michelangelo and Baroque figuration as with the compositional strategies and subjects of either Ojibwe or Street Art styles. The other prime location for Meta-Modern Imagism is across the street at Greg Moon Gallery. Moon himself produces highly cool light-boxes and assemblage, and stocks the space floor to ceiling with works by New Mexi- low-brow luminati, like Dennis Larkins, Joel Nakamura, Dirk Kortz, Holly Wood and Indigenous comic-artist Ryan Singer.

A triskelion is a symbol made up of three lines coming together. It is common in Celtic illuminated manuscripts and contemporary tattoos, but can be found in cultures all over the world. It can be seen as representing three rivers in confluence, or the strength of community. The layered artistic history of the region can almost be read like the striations of geologic ages exposed by the Rio Grande as it carves the Taos Gorge just south of town. Call it the ages colliding, the strata shifting, or styles, modes and subjects all tumbling together, to create rich and innovative visual experiences. The talk in Taos’ art community these days centers on collaboration and inclusion; the recognition that the spring melts the snow into sparkling brooks and acequias that run together to make the river swell, and when that happens, all boats float on the water of life. Once the spiral lines of the triskelion joins at the center, the form begins to radiate outward as well.
—JON CARVER