Cady Wells,

Pasatiempo - - North­ern Lights -

of what made his haunt­ing paint­ings pos­si­ble came from the themes and artis­tic tech­niques used by san­teros.

Ac­cord­ing to Rud­nick, the san­tos heav­ily in­flu­enced his vis­ual pal­ette. “He loved their reds, browns, and blues that took on a dark­ened patina with age,” Rud­nick writes. “But he bor­rowed more than color and sub­ject mat­ter from them. In the late 1930s he be­gan to ex­per­i­ment with gouache, and in­cis­ing, cross-hatch­ing the bor­ders and back­grounds in his santo-themed paint­ings.”

Take, for in­stance, his un­ti­tled por­trait of a St. Rita santo, carved by José Aragón. Known as the “Saint of the Im­pos­si­bles,” St. Rita was a 14th-cen­tury Ital­ian woman who was mar­ried off at 12 to an older man who beat her daily. Even­tu­ally, her hus­band was mur­dered, and her twin sons died of dis­ease within a year of their father’s killing. In Wells’ paint­ing, he merges this woman’s face into the bar­ren land­scape of the Po­joaque Valley, her ochre cheeks matched to the mesas and cliffs be­hind her. In this case, Wells has taken a Euro­pean saint and ef­fec­tively rooted her in New Mex­ico’s chamisa-cov­ered bar­ranca as a bea­con of hope for the hope­less.

In a sim­i­lar man­ner, Wells took one of José Ben­ito Ortega’s wood-carved gesso cru­ci­fixes and made it into Head of Christ, a dark, ex­pres­sion­ist bit of oil and wa­ter­color on pa­per. Where Ortega’s Christ is straight-faced and dis­pas­sion­ate, a hum­ble piece of wood carv­ing that dare not im­pute any feel­ings to a re­li­gious sav­ior, Wells’ paint­ing rev­els in con­tra­dic­tory emo­tions. His Christ is all face, blood­stained cheeks and fore­head, his large eyes sad and dark­ened by long­ing for some other world.

While san­tos are heav­ily iden­ti­fied with New Mex­ico, Wells’ ge­nius was to make images of the san­tos that were in­tensely bound up with their so­cial land­scape. Again, us­ing José Ben­ito Ortega’s wood-carv­ing of San Ilde­fonso, the pa­tron saint of the New Mex­ico Pue­blo tribe, Wells used ink and gouache to draw the saint in his tor­mented land­scape. The San Ilde­fonso peo­ple were key war­riors in the Pue­blo Re­volt of 1680 and fought de­fen­sively against the Re­con­quest in the next decade. None­the­less, Span­ish Catholi­cism came to dom­i­nate the re­li­gious faith of the pue­blo over the next few cen­turies, and in the paint­ing, San Ilde­fonso stands with arms akimbo over a trem­bling land­scape, grave­stones quak­ing, moradas shoot­ing light from their rooftops, moun­tains threat­en­ing to col­lapse on the town. The jit­tery, epic move­ment of the paint­ing re­flects the so­cial up­heaval that came to the pue­blo with the ar­rival of the Ro­man Catholic church.

Though Wells’ san­tos-in­spired can­vases sug­gest a strong command of the tech­niques used by san­teros, there is no ev­i­dence that Wells stud­ied un­der or even met a san­tero. “Most of the san­tos he was col­lect­ing were by artists who were no longer liv­ing. I’ve never seen any­thing that talks about Wells meet­ing with them at all,” Robin Far­well Gavin, cu­ra­tor for the Mu­seum of Span­ish Colo­nial Art, said in an in­ter­view with Pasatiempo. Gavin added that we should re­mem­ber that dur­ing Wells’ era, “many of the His­pano artists were not even con­sid­ered part of the main­stream art world.”

None­the­less, Wells showed a strong sense of taste in his col­lec­tion. “He had a re­ally broader in­ter­est in the cul­ture. Though the largest part of his col­lec­tion were san­tos, he also col­lected fur­ni­ture, tex­tiles, and tin­work. There weren’t that many peo­ple col­lect­ing this work at the time. He was pretty open-minded, and he had a real con­nec­tion to the cul­ture and the area,” Gavin said.

How­ever much Wells may have revered the san­tos, Gavin notes that his ap­pre­ci­a­tion and ap­pro­pri­a­tion of them was fun­da­men­tally at odds with their orig­i­nal use. “By re­paint­ing and re­con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing the san­tos, Wells was, in fact, im­pos­ing a value judg­ment on the work of the orig­i­nal artists, trans­form­ing their work into some­thing bet­ter suited to his modernist aes­thetic,” Gavin writes. “The paint­ings show lit­tle sense of the hope and com­fort that th­ese images orig­i­nally brought to peo­ple’s lives.”

Wells’ san­tos paint­ings were a way to write the past into the present. “When you look at one of the san­tos next to one of his paint­ings, he def­i­nitely uses it as a spring­board. He puts a lot more emo­tional ex­pres­sion into his paint­ing of it. My in­ter­pre­ta­tion is that maybe he found some kind of so­lace in them,” Gavin said. “There was em­pa­thy there.”

Wells: Un­ti­tled (por­trait of Santa Rita), circa 1947, oil on can­vas board, 24 x 20 inches

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