Saturday, June 10, 2017

Landscapes of Life & Death

Landscapes of Life & Death
by Mary Anne Redding
Guest Curator

The exhibition, Landscapes of Life & Death, offers a poignant opportunity to look at life, loss, death and the fragile ecosystems we inhabit. Spanning emotionally fraught landscapes of human death as well as environmental landscapes of devastation and renewal, six contemporary photographic artists, Lynne Buchanan, Kevin Horan, Marietta Patricia Leis, Ella Sala Myers, Kevin O’Connell and Donna J. Wan, address the nuances of loss and grief, both for themselves and for the planet, by examining our intimate connections with nature. The idea of death generally makes people uncomfortable, especially when it’s the intimate experience of human death, the death of a beloved pet, or the mass destruction of life and landscape after a devastating fire. Yet many artists explore the shape of loss as a meditation, whether through contemplation of their own passing or through a more universal meditation on loss and grief. Many artists are exploring the no-longer-subtle effects of climate change on the landscape, and on those of us who inhabit altered lands. Photographs, grounded as they are in the “real”—or at least some approximation of reality given digital interventions—reveal a unique vision of the cycles of life and death, often in a public setting. How do contemporary photographic artists grapple with the nuances of loss, of death and life, on both a personal scale and the broader scope of a seared landscape or endangered wildlife inhabiting polluted waterways and lands?

Marietta Patricia Leis (New Mexico) writes: “The Antarctic is a place so special, so untouched and regal in its natural beauty. The magnificence of the glaciers, mountains, icebergs and yes, storms dwarfing the ship and our ‘humanness’ were beyond anything I had ever experienced. The raw and untouched surroundings felt like being on Earth on the day of its birth.” At the apex, birth is difficult. Drawn to “the end of the earth” because of its position on the planet, Leis did not initially anticipate the dangers of navigating the Drake Passage, even in a seasoned Russian Research vessel. On a trip that took two additional harrowing days, a furious storm and, 50-foot waves pounded the sturdy boat and its sea-sick inhabitants who were lashed to their bunks for safety (even the captain later admitted he had never experienced seas so rough). The storm ended in a sunrise so heartbreaking and beautiful it struck its viewers as a precious gift: they had survived. Ever an artist, Leis managed to photograph the storm through her cabin window and record the sounds of the boat creaking as it crashed through the unrelenting waves. 

Lynne Buchanan (Florida) creates artwork that is place specific, exploring, initially, the protected watersheds and wild riparian areas of her home state of Florida; at the same time, she acknowledges that water issues do not stop at the borderlines of municipalities or states. Instead she sees the interconnected and global nature of our environmental problems, exploring water issues across the United States, in Iceland and in Patagonia. The world’s waterways, she writes, “are treasures that are being irreparably damaged from the negative impacts of climate change, agricultural pollution, population and urban growth, and land development. The preservation of water should not be a partisan issue. It is a basic human right that we all need to work together to preserve”. In the deserts of the Southwest, where dams and water usage wars scar the landscape, Buchanan’s photographs are a call to action to preserve our natural resources for both their natural beauty and their essential role in species survival. 

Kevin Horan 
(Washington) began his photographic exploration of the death and metamorphosis of animals when he stumbled upon the scene of a dead deer still bleeding in the snow. Initially horrified, Horan presumed the deer had been killed by careless hunters interested only in the kill, who left without dressing the meat to use for food. Moving closer to photograph the buck, he realized it had been brought down by coyotes or wolves, and his approach had scattered them into the trees to wait, watching, until he left. Moved to ruminate on the words of a friend who was afraid of dying, Horan now seeks out the cycles of life in the natural world as a way of coming to terms with parsing his own physicality. Looking at the still animals, not seeing but sensing the microscopic life that continues, or the dark burnt trees ravished by fire yet carpeted with green soft shoots, brings to mind the poetry of e. e. cummings: 

… for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes … 1

Donna J. Wan
 (California) is drawn to “suicide destinations,” those places where people suffering from profound despair will travel, often at great distances from where they live, to situate themselves in nature, in sublimely beautiful landscapes one last time before ending their lives. From her personal experience and research, Wan has found these places are frequently near water, mountains or valleys. She does not pretend to know why anyone chooses the locations they do, nor is it her intent to romanticize places of death, rather, she hopes that her elusively hazy and delicately soft-focused images, which she believes reflects the clouded state of the suicidal mind, will provide just the barest glimpse into the minds of those “that may have thought that dying in these beautiful places was a peaceful way to end their suffering.” 

Kevin O’Connell 
(Colorado) has a rare form of cancer. He has spent more time than he would like to recall in hospital rooms, in his own room, confined, enduring the process of illness and therapy. Turing to his camera, the artist seeks release from the discomfort, from the ongoing battle between the pain and his weak body, from his struggle to do something with the hours of inactivity, of waiting. Intensely personal, O’Connell’s series,100 Days (inside), 2006 was made while he was undergoing blood transfusions and other invasive cancer treatments. Seeking instant gratification, the artist aimed his Polaroid camera at the shadows and corners of his room, looking for the reward of light, color, and form that pushed past the physicality of the walls, the inescapable smells, and the scratchy sheets, to release, to creativity. 

The final part of this exhibition is a tribute to the young artist, Ella Sala Myers (New Mexico)—Ella’s life ended when she died at the age of 16 in a tragic plane crash. Ella, along with two other students, Michael Sebastian Mahl and Ella Jaz Kirk, were eco-monitors for the Aldo Leopold Charter School in Silver City, New Mexico studying the effects of the newly formed burn scar created by the Signal Fire in the Gila Wilderness. The students were part of the Youth Conservation Corps, monitoring water quality on the Gila River and San Vicente Creek and researching soil and forest ecology for the US Forest Service. During a reconnaissance flight over the path of the flames, the weather changed unexpectedly and the small plane crashed as the private pilot tried to land. No one survived. The short film, cloud photographs and text—reveal a young artist on the brink of a career in the arts—honor the New Mexican landscape, clouds and water, horses and family. 

In many ways, these are the moments that are important to each of us: the landscapes in which we live, our families, and our animal companions. The artists in Landscapes of Life & Death understand that the future of our individual self-preservation, the ongoing exceptionalism of Antarctica, or the beauty of Florida’s waterways are threatened not only by personal action or inaction, but also by global climate change and geopolitical competition for natural resources and other short-sited economic or political gain. We all live and we all die downstream. What are you going to do about the climate we have, personally and collectively, created? 

Mary Anne Redding is currently Curator at the Turchin Center. She was previously the Curator of the Marion Center for Photographic Arts and the Chair of the Photography Department at Santa Fe University of Art & Design. And before that was the Curator of Photography for the Palace of the Governors/New Mexico History Museum. She has more than twenty-five years experience working as a curator, archivist, librarian, educator, and arts administrator.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Experiments in Cinema v12.3: The Cubano Edition

Experiments in Cinema v12.3: The Cubano Edition

Experiments in Cinema is an annual celebration of international, cinematic undependence. This Basement Films festival brings the global community of alternative moving image artists to New Mexico as a way of inspiring a new generation of media activists to recognize the value of their voices and to participate in shaping future trends of cultural representation. Experiments in Cinema screens approximately 100 films from over 35 countries in addition to hosting unique lectures, workshops and a regional youth program that features films made by New Mexican high school students.  

Expanding Video is a pop-up exhibit that mirrors the mission of our festival, offering attendees a cross section of works that speak to our understanding of the depth and breadth of the current sate of the (media) art. To this end, we try to be inclusive while also challenging our own aesthetic predisposition. Expanding Video, and the films and programs presented at the Guild Cinema (our other festival venue), are expressions of this mission. In this exhibit of media-based installation work, not only are we featuring works that embrace new technologies, but also those that look back to embrace what we like to call dead technologies.  And, at the risk of suggesting a false binary, we would like to think that we are also presenting works that study “everything in between.”  
The title, Expanding Video, is borrowed from Cuban media scholar Yainet Rodriguez. Rodriguez who is one of five Cuban scholars who Experiments in Cinema is hosting as part of our festival’s special focus on Cuban media art this year. Yainet is presenting a program that explores time-based installation work from that island country in conjunction with this pop-up exhibition. One might note that amongst the works in this exhibition is Three In One Flags by Cuban artist, Nestor Siré.

I am often asked to define undependent cinema (sometimes referred to as experimental, personal or the alternative screen), which is a fair question considering the dynamic nature of the form. Unlike a Western, romantic comedy or horror movie, the parameters and tropes of cinematic undependence are much more slippery, as they necessarily move and oscillate in challenging and unexpected ways. Consider how, back in the 1930s, Georgia O’Keeffe experimented with paint and canvas in terms of how one might re-envision the way a landscape can be represented on a rectangular surface. Or, think about how a scientist might develop a hypothesis and then stage an experiment to explore the validity of his/her assertion. These are all illustrations that suggest possibilities for assessing and interpreting cinematic experimentation. 

I consider undependent, cinematic practitioners to be the traveling troubadours of our day. In the most egalitarian way, these artists are invested in sharing the news of the day (literally and often metaphorically), from their perspectives and from their particular corners of the world. These are works that speak from the heart. They are not tainted by boardrooms filled with marketing executives, burdened by multi-million dollar budgets or assigned value by Saatchi & Saatchi. Too often, the moving image/cinema is thought of as something that necessarily costs millions of dollars to make. If one believes in the cultural importance of the arts, imagine if a painting necessarily cost millions of dollars to make, we would be culturally bankrupt.  The moving image arts have a responsibility (like all the arts) to deliver a vital, barometric read of the human condition. To this end it is the goal of Experiments in Cinema to offer works that speak to this responsibility, while also offering opportunities for engagement and, most importantly, participation. Go make a movie (that doesn’t cost millions of dollars to craft) or a time-based installation, and then share it with EVERYONE!

 Bryan Konefsky
    Founder/Director, Experiments in Cinema
    President, Basement Films

Decolonizing Nature

Decolonizing Nature
Chloë Courtney & Lara Esther Goldmann, Exhibition Curators

Decolonizing Nature brings together diverse voices to the conversation on geopolitical power structures, coloniality, and their severe impact on ecology and indigenous communities. Together the artists reveal the complexity, as well as the interconnected relationships between ecological and social injustices. Looking at the work of Allora & Calzadilla, addressing the military occupation and ensuing environmental and social injustices in Vieques, Puerto Rico, or the installation Return of a Lake by Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves, points to the continuous reproduction of hierarchical power structures. Return of a Lake represents both the artist’s research practice as well as her deep collaboration with the community of Xico in the Valley of Mexico, examining the impact coloniality (the continuation of the logics that made colonization possible) has had and still has on that community and its agricultural practices.

The relationships between many of the works reveal a broad concern with documenting, practicing, and revitalizing indigenous agricultural methods and ways of relating to our environment as an act of resistance. The work of New Mexico-based artist and activist Basia Irland meditates upon the historical, cultural, and environmental significance of various rivers that have been subject to industrial and political exploitation, destroying not only natural habitats, but also the communities who depend upon these rivers. Likewise, Guatemalan artist Sandra Monterroso recovers and restores both her own heritage as a Maya artist, as well as larger cultural practices, relating the tradition and process of dying textiles to the incremental but serious destruction of the land and water. Reconsidering these histories counters the systemic erasure of Maya existence and history in Guatemala. Similarly, the work of Carlos Maravilla Santos and Ehecatl Morales Valdelamar, a collective based in Mexico City, studies and collaborates with Xochimilco, a region which still reflects the canals, chinampas, and waterways that comprised the original structure of the city before colonization. Their community-based practice involves workshops, performances, and many collaborations with local advocacy groups to maintain these traditional and sustainable agricultural practices, reinforcing their importance and making them present within the larger urban environment of Mexico City. The importance of art and visual imagery as elements of social movements is abundantly apparent through the prints of Dylan AT Miner, which helped galvanize awareness and support for the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, and point to the economic interests continuing colonial structures of power, and the consequences this has for land, water, and communities. The poetic photographs of Michael P. Berman allude to the physical displacement and fragmented identities caused by the implicit and actual violence of the borderlands, and the historical and continuing enforcement of hierarchies of power through structures such as race, religion, and capitalism.

The artworks included, with their potential to raise questions and provoke critical thought, show us a way in which we can begin to question the historical narratives and assumed knowledges that continue to dictate the conversations surrounding social, economic, ecological and political injustices. As such, Virginia Colwell’s installation destabilizes the parameters of predominant narratives of knowledge through its critical understanding of how museums, academies, and other institutions have systematically reified these histories, provoking a reconsideration of hegemonic thought and knowledge systems as well as which cultural practices are considered valid—or not.

In their various connections to specific communities and struggles of decolonizing histories, landscapes, and nature, these artists make the broad concepts of resistance, resilience, and revitalization tangible. The ways in which the works de-link from official narratives and recover memories, both individual and collective, remind us that art offers a powerful space from which to speak, and from which to decolonize.
We are incredibly grateful to the participating artists for sharing their work, which we strongly believe asks us to question hegemonic ways of understanding the world we live in, and pushes us as individuals to seek new ways of thinking, resisting, and connecting to the environment and each other.

The exhibition Decolonizing Nature at 516 ARTS was in conjunction the environmental justice conference Decolonizing Nature: Resistance, Resilience, Revitalization, organized by Subhankar Banerjee, Lannan Chair, Land Arts of the American West / Art & Ecology Program, UNM College of Fine Arts.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Inter-inspiration at 516 ARTS

By Shelle Vanetten de Sanchez, Ph.D

On a Saturday evening in March 2017, 516 ARTS brought together a fascinating, inter-everything (interdisciplinary, intergenerational, international) panel of women to talk about art, identity, politics, feminism, and self-expression moderated by Megan Kamerick. Margaret Randall (renowned poet and photographer), Doris Difaranecio (self-described “dike Colombian, New Yorker, performance artist), Erin Galvez (young, soft-spoken visual artist), Dagmara Zabska (energetic, outspoken Polish theatre artist/director), and Kelsey Paschich (poised, elegant dancer) sat together in a gallery full of audience members.

The discussion was wide-ranging and full of beautiful nuggets of inspiration and insight. Perhaps, the only threads tying these women together (beyond gender) were creative passion and artistic achievement. There was talk of feminism, women’s issues, and women’s work – ideas that fuel each of these artists at various levels and in shifting forms. Mostly, there was talk of art, creativity, and self-expression.

Each spoke beautifully about art and artmaking and this ultimately connected every loose strand of the discussion. Kelsey spoke not simply of dance, but of “movement as a language that makes transparent the space between dream and reality with spontaneity, juxtaposition, and the element of surprise.” Doris described her socially engaged projects in Chiapas with Mayan artists as “memory and testimony intersected with transformation and activism and beauty.”  Margaret, often described by others as a political writer shared, “I resist ‘political’ art – I am political and politics show up in my art, but so does love and nature and beauty.” Dagmara’s description of her theatre work was both literal and metaphorical and is arguably true for many artists, “we are trying to find accurate pictures working with shadows.”

It was encouraging and powerful to see Erin and Kelsey (the youngest members of the panel) seated on either side of Margaret (the eldest of the panel) – not simply the continuum of age, but also as a representation of the arc of life-long creative practice. Erin, finishing her M.F.A., shared that she has a lot of questions about her identity, especially as a Filipina-American. While Margaret confidently said, “I just am who I am.”

Motherhood pushed Kelsey to ask herself, “Now what? What is the purpose of my work?” These questions led her to co-found SHIFT I DANCE to give voice and a platform to many women artists. While 80 year-old Margaret explains, “I went from my middle years when housework and motherhood accompanied every book that I published to my later years when I balanced my own work with my day job. Now, these are my most productive years – I am free to do my own work and work 12 – 14 hours per day. It is wonderful.”

The gift of this wide-ranging discussion was the pure enthusiasm of each woman for her creative discipline and a long list of with inspiration and insight in my notebook. Here are just a few of favorites:

“Our language is being changed – that is my big concern as a writer. Beware of hierarchies and ask more questions.”  – Margaret Randall

“Be more focused. Follow your intuition. Be patient. Read. Make love. Don't surrender yourselves to other voices.”  – Doris Difaranecio

“I disagree with the fake smile and the pressure to be happy. Don’t be afraid – defeat is just defeat – it’s really not the end of the world.”  – Dagmara Zabska

The event “Public Forum: Women Artists Speak Out: Feminism & Creative Expression” was presented by 516 ARTS in conjunction with Women & Creativity 2017 and in partnership with Tricklock Company’s Revolutions International Theatre Festival.

Shelle Sanchez is a planner, facilitator and optimist working at intersections of art, education and community. She serves on the Advisory Board of 516 ARTS.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Karsten Creightney
Paper Visions 

His voracious curiosity about art’s role in history means we cannot avoid what Karsten Creightney has contributed to this moment in our voracious living history. Partly that’s because the scale of his offerings are dimensional not only in size, subject matter, materials. In his words, the heart of things is “worn on [his] sleeve.”

That advertisement for me advocates unabashedness combined with humility. Creightney refers to himself as a “very slow learner,” someone who in younger days felt worlds away from technical prowess of European Renaissance and Dutch masters, leagues apart from El Greco and Velasquez. Their times and subject matters appeared too far afield, a full understanding of what they portrayed or portended elusive. But it wasn’t much time before repeated open-minded returns urged by the safety of his family, his schools, their books, and those doors began to gradually swing open.

He discloses how aspects of his training, their emphasis on old ways of hierarchical mastery, are what turned him away from those previous eras of artistic practice. He strives instead to maintain a constant sense of autodidactism. “I never want to stop apprenticing.” Thus his tendency propels a commitment to liberal arts without fear of veering into unexpected or uncharted territories.

Retreats into the natural world also provide ongoing tutelage. Those and adventures in foraging, pulling materials from thrift stores and discarded books, layering them with matter and inquiry without caution about how they might transport him and his viewers into unexpected places. He says such improvisational impulses are in response, in part, to contemporary academic and art market fixations with conceptual art. The trick, according to Creightney, is not to fear ubiquity, not to fear subject matter if it veers hazardously close to derivative or what he refers to cheerfully as overplayed. (In fact, labels of all sorts be damned for their impositions and superficiality.) 

Arab Spring II, lithography, silkscreen,
ink & colored pencil on paper, 30 x 22 inches 

“If I want to paint flowers,” he laughs, “then gawd-dammit, I’m going to paint flowers.” 

Lightheartedness is part of how he renders what others might press into hackneyed imagery. How he’s capable of playing with and in contrast to a subject of conventional beauty the recurring flower figure in ways not prescribed by traditional precedents.

There were moments he wondered whether it was viable to fixate on a subject we find ourselves yawning at, glazed over at in a hospital waiting area or a sterile hotel room. It’s viable. With head-on pursuit of multiple mediums, offset and highlighted with multiple fields of information. With rabbit-skin glue to preserve the integrity of what others refer to as a canvas. With layers of pasted paper, thin mixtures of wax, varnish, linseed oil. With printmaking pressure that sinks one thin piece of Japanese parchment into a thicker base. It means great lengths to smooth it into a complete carrying vessel. And for work so antithetical to superficial, the surface is one of the essentials.

Speaking of precedents: What I read as (cheeky?) references to early Andy Warhol’s floral work, Creightney says are grateful and unabashed acts of homage. He loves, after all, that Warhol implanted a conversation with the culture of mass production still buzzing, loves learning through imitation by adopting some of the same processes that Warhol did in his frenzied pursuit of imitation. The Warhol way of making work implanted a kind of new dialect into the world of art, a license to give its practitioners, Creightney among them, an abiding lack of inhibition.

“It’s in his spirit that I’m stealing and borrowing.” (Again, laughing.) Such full transparency in methodology means weight and depth of his pieces manage to simultaneously wholly complement and counteract other forms of sincerest flattery or thievery. His Lagoon woman was “straight-up lifted” from Gauguin’s Woman By the Sea. (It had to be done. “She’s a gesture of pure beauty.”) There are also nods to David Hockney’s deconstructed Western landscapes photographs, though Creightney’s are an invocation of serenity, an idyll imagined rather than imprinted or constructed.

He’s considered making work more polished, more precisely packaged. Stints in academia instilled how to distill polished descriptives, but those exercises also taught him that those are “against my nature.” Rather he tries to exert a “push and pull between deliberate intention” and what materializes, morphed by reactions to the materials he collects and manipulates. Not immune to the manic barrage of political discourse that only seems to have picked up steam and vitriol and volume, “but it’s also so exhausting and infuriating, that I have to escape into my own worlds--peaceful worlds that only exist in the imagination.”

Karsten Creightney, Self Portrait as Walter Scott, 2016, collage, silkscreen, acrylic & wax on wood, 24 x 32 inches

Karsten Creightney, Lagoon, 2016, collage, silkscreen, watercolor, acrylic, oil & wax on canvas, 66 x 78 inches

And “I don’t want to shout,” he says, nor does he confront with aggression. Rather he extends an invitation, provides the space and time he’s been allowed in his own life for asking disconcerting questions, for expelling anger and frustration in compelling forms  rather than reacting. He’s seen people turn away hardened, lacking transformation, when they’re “immediately hammered with the point.”

His wariness of the potential of art to comment on civil society with exploitative methods is palpable. “I’m not living in the ghetto. Cops aren’t harassing me on a daily basis. Talk to me on the phone, and you’d probably not have any idea I’m black.” The question, then: Is the maker’s right to explore such subjects, to take any ownership, to benefit from an awful extreme?

A film that struck him, 13th, omitted Walter Scott’s killing by a Charleston police officer per wishes of Scott’s family. And yet a still frame trimmed out of the worldwide sharing of his visible death notice meant Creightney felt not only “fury” and horror, but that “as an artist it’s also my place to acknowledge countless things,” no matter how they incite feelings that simply cannot be contained. His Arab Spring II piece, for one: Creightney describes its background as a field of noise. But that field feeds crops, bloom bursting through what others see a desert. Not unlike the places he calls home, places that can peel  eyes open with drought or depletion, beauty brimming from a wilderness unaccustomed outsiders might overlook as too harsh, too brown, too barren. Too fertile to crave shelter.

Karsten Creightney, Outskirts, 2016, collage, watercolor, acrylic, oil & wax on canvas, 66 x 78 inches

— Margaret Wright
    Freelance journalist from New Mexico, residing in Washington, D.C. 

View the exhibition brochure here