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