State of the Arts

Michael Abatemarco looks askance at Santa Fe’s public art

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Michael Abatemarco

Stand­still: art in public places

AS I sit un­der the Cross of the Mar­tyrs, a mon­u­ment com­mem­o­rat­ing the death of Fran­cis­can fri­ars and Span­ish colonists dur­ing the Pue­blo Re­volt of 1680, I won­der why there’s noth­ing that re­mem­bers the four Pue­blo In­di­ans whose deaths, by or­der of Juan Fran­cisco Tre­viño, New Mex­ico’s gover­nor from 1675 to 1679, helped spur the up­ris­ing in the first place. My thoughts then turn to public art, and I begin to pon­der why so much of it in Santa Fe is so bad.

A par­tic­u­larly gar­ish ex­am­ple is New Mex­ico’s Eter­nal Flame, a mon­u­ment to the mem­bers of the 200th Coast Ar­tillery who died dur­ing the Bataan Death March in 1942. Ris­ing above a marker at­tached to the base is a nar­row black pedestal with a golden ea­gle, its wings open as if in flight, perched on top. The marker was made by the men of the 200th when they were sta­tioned at Fort Bliss, Texas. A cou­ple of decades af­ter the fate­ful sur­ren­der it was moved from Fort Bliss to its cur­rent lo­ca­tion out­side the Bataan Me­mo­rial Build­ing on Don Gas­par Av­enue. A com­mon re­frain heard when dis­cussing the piece with friends and col­leagues is that the ea­gle looks like an ex­am­ple of the Re­ich­sadler, the im­pe­rial em­blem that was taken up by the Nazi Party. That has al­ways been my im­pres­sion too — and it’s an un­set­tling one, con­sid­er­ing that the men the Eter­nal Flame com­mem­o­rates died fight­ing against the Axis pow­ers.

In 1971 Lor­raine Carr, a colum­nist at the time for The Santa Fe New Mex­i­can , wrote that the “artis­tic cit­i­zens de­clared the marker was a mon­stros­ity and should be rel­e­gated to the dump heap.” At least it’s some­thing to talk about. What about the rest of the public art in Santa Fe? Some works, like the Eter­nal Flame, are meant to honor his­tory, the de­ceased, or an ideal, which is fine — but must so much public art (and in a city with a strong artis­tic pedi­gree, there re­ally isn’t as much as you might ex­pect) also be bor­ing?

To be sure, a lot of public art­works come in the form of fig­u­ra­tive bronze sculp­ture. You could al­most call it the de­fault medium for out­door art, but such works rarely en­gage the senses or re­flect Santa Fe’s vi­brant con­tem­po­rary-arts com­mu­nity, heir to the city’s con­sid­er­able artis­tic le­gacy. The Jour­ney’s End , a 2002 bronze by Rey­naldo Rivera that is lo­cated off of Old Santa Fe Trail at the en­trance to Mu­seum Hill, is a mon­u­ment to the set­tlers who trav­eled across the his­toric route stretch­ing from Franklin, Mis­souri, to Santa Fe — but it’s hardly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of any­thing in the col­lec­tions at the Hill’s four mu­se­ums.

Con­cep­tual or ex­pe­ri­en­tial works of public art are few and far be­tween. When Gal­is­teo-based artist Nancy Holt died last year at the age of seventy-five, I was re­minded of how her land-based in­stal­la­tions and public sculp­tures were of­ten po­si­tioned with con­sid­er­a­tion for the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment, even align­ing them­selves with ce­les­tial bod­ies. Holt was aware of a sense of place, whether re­gional or uni­ver­sal, and it’s re­gret­table that noth­ing com­pa­ra­ble to her Sun Tun­nels (Great Basin Desert), Dark Star Park (Ross­lyn, Vir­ginia), and So­lar

Ro­tary (the Uni­ver­sity of South Florida in Tampa) can be found here. There is James Tur­rell’s Blue Blood ,an early ex­am­ple of the artist’s tem­ple­like Skys­pace in­stal­la­tions — works in which the sky and its chang­ing qual­ity of light are di­rected through a rec­tan­gu­lar open­ing to cre­ate a sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence — that was built in 1988 on the cam­pus of the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts. De­spite ef­forts to fund its con­ser­va­tion, the piece has lan­guished.

Santa Fe has not been kind to its public art. Af­ter be­ing par­tially top­pled by strong winds in the spring of 2007, Stone­fridge — Adam Horowitz’s 18-foot-tall, 100-foot-di­am­e­ter replica of Stone­henge that sat on a for­mer land­fill off of Buck­man Road (it was made from dis­carded re­frig­er­a­tors) — was never re­built, de­spite its sta­tus as a tourist des­ti­na­tion. “Stone­henge for me rep­re­sented the birth of tech­no­log­i­cal civ­i­liza­tion, and I wanted to re­call that and at the same time make ref­er­ence to what may be death to our na­tion,” Horowitz told The Santa Fe New Mex­i­can af­ter it had been dam­aged. Horowitz aligned his work not with ce­les­tial events, as Holt did, but with Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­to­ries: a sym­bolic nod to the dark side of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment. Stone­fridge , a mon­u­ment to con­sumer cul­ture, was still in devel­op­ment as a long-term project when city of­fi­cials elected to re­move it, cit­ing safety is­sues.

Stone­fridge had be­come a public nui­sance. In 2013 Cathe­dral Park’s sculp­ture of Don Diego de Var­gas was badly dam­aged by van­dals, who de­faced it and nearly knocked it off its pedestal. Harry Ber­toia’s

Un­ti­tled (Mon­u­men­tal Son­am­bi­ent) , a sound sculp­ture on the grounds of Pey­ton Wright Gallery, was tar­geted the fol­low­ing year, as was the bronze burro at the en­trance to Burro Al­ley. Time takes a toll on public art, but the risk of van­dal­ism is prob­a­bly greater for works that don’t en­gage the public in mean­ing­ful ways. In­stead, such pieces sit still, some­times — as in the case of Don Diego de Var­gas — even rankling peo­ple. Some Na­tive peo­ples view De Var­gas’ place in his­tory quite dif­fer­ently from many His­pan­ics, which may or may not have had some­thing to do with the as­sault on the Cathe­dral Park statue.

One pos­i­tive thing that may have come from the in­ci­dent is a call for de­bate. Af­ter all, a work of art shouldn’t have to meet such a fate in or­der to cap­ture the in­ter­est of passers-by. Per­haps public art of the fu­ture will chal­lenge a viewer’s per­cep­tions and com­mis­sioned struc­tures will be in­sep­a­ra­ble from the spa­ces con­tain­ing them, mak­ing their phys­i­cal hosts part of their com­po­si­tions. Per­haps such places will give their vis­i­tors a sense of what they’re all about by invit­ing hu­man guests to in­ter­act with them, ex­plore them. I’m hop­ing for works of art that speak to the con­cerns and ex­pe­ri­ences of living cul­tures — that are, in a sense, alive them­selves — and aren’t merely un­chang­ing mon­u­ments to peo­ple and events from long ago.

Charles Southard: Burro , 1988, bronze; top, Rey­naldo Rivera:

Jour­ney’s End (de­tail), 2002, bronze; mid­dle, New Mex­ico’s Eter­nal Flame, ded­i­cated June 18, 1966

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