New Mexico myth busting A Contested Art by Stephanie Lewthwaite
IF New Mexico is a land of myth and mythology, some of those myths warrant reconsideration — particularly when they affect identity, creativity, and our artistic heritage. In the recent book A Contested Art, scholar Stephanie Lewthwaite, a lecturer in American history at the University of Nottingham, explores t he preconceptions t hat have characterized 20th-century New Mexican art. “[T]he Hispano homeland was neither the ‘ exceptional and isolated’ place evoked by the Spanish colonial narrative nor the land of purity, harmony, and enchantment conjured up by modernists, tourists, and boosters,” Lewthwaite writes. It was, instead, “a shifting mestizo terrain shaped by histories of exclusion, erasure, and inequality and by patterns of hybridity, change, and modernity.”
Parallel to that myth is another one, the source of the titular contestation: the notion of Hispano art as merely traditional, as embodying the past rather than exploring and responding to modernity. “In the primitivist narrative” that took hold after Anglos began arriving in New Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s, “Hispanos were craftspeople and, at best, folk or ‘ primitive’ artists, and when Hispanos engaged with alternative media or modernist techniques, their art was either inauthentic or imitative.”
The roots of that narrative go back further still, to the idea of New Mexico as a place of “tricultural harmony” — Hispano, Pueblo, Anglo — where Hispanos were of pure Spanish blood, traceable to early Spanish colonists. Both notions denied the intermixing of cultures that led to mestizaje and simplified the deeply complicated history of the region (in addition to reiterating the myth of New Mexican isolation, even within itself). In the 1920s, the “Spanish colonial myth” contributed to the establishment of patronage relationships and markets for Spanish colonial art. “The ‘revival’ of the 1920s tied Hispanos to a static colonial art tradition,” Lewthwaite writes. Although New Deal art programs did much to promote and commemorate regional art, they were preservationist more than they were experimental and did not dispel the myth of stasis.
While modernist artists were coming to New Mexico from the eastern United States, local artists were thus placed along a different narrative. They were coexistent but separate — except for those times when modernists incorporated traditional and folkloric forms into their work.
In her meticulous decimation of all these myths and others, Lewthwaite scrutinizes the works of four New Mexico artists: Patrocinio Barela, John Candelario,
Edward Arcenio Chávez, and Margaret Herrera Chávez. Each offers clear proof that modernist experimentation was not just the purview of nonnative Southwesterners.
Barela, born in Bisbee, Arizona, and a longtime Taos resident, joined the New Deal’s Federal Art Project in 1935, garnering recognition that led to the exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and elsewhere. Barela worked in the santero tradition, carving wooden bultos (three-dimensional saint images). Whereas he came to represent “the image of an artist moved by nature and intuition rather than by the modern trappings of status and materialism,” Lewthwaite describes the distortions, fragmentations, and abstractions in Barela’s sculptures, and the ways in which modernity — including the demands of itinerant work and the ruptures to family and society — had a profound effect on his life and work.
Similarly but distinctively, Santa Feborn photographer Candelario worked in a tradition, in this case using the camera to convey geography and environment. But his New Mexico was not the empty New Mexico of some contemporary photographers, devoid of people and modern features. Tourism, tech- nology, and the atomic age were represented alongside images of churches and kivas. In Car Door Gate, Chimayó (1940), for instance, Candelario photographed an abandoned car door near El Santuario de Chimayó, instead of the church’s celebrated facade.
Like Barela, Chávez, born in 1917 in Ocaté, New Mexico, spent much of his youth traveling as an itinerant laborer, in farm and field jobs that may have informed the “dual search for roots and routes” of his abstract paintings, in which the “use of line and perspective evokes a migratory rather than fixed effect.” Chávez’s move to Woodstock, New York, and his reminiscences of the Southwest also influenced the sense of place in his works, with “clusters of vivid color ... evok[ing] the heat and intensity of the desert landscape” in his Mojave II (circa 1965).
Discussing the paintings of Herrera Chávez, Lewthwaite confronts the effects on Hispana artists of the Spanish colonial myth and the preservation of traditional gender roles. Herrera Chávez, born in Las Vegas, New Mexico, experimented with expressionism and Cubism amid still lifes and depictions of women in domestic settings, undermining the notion of “women’s art forms as part of an isolated colonial heritage” (for instance, weaving and colcha). Instead, she brought in nonlocal influences — particularly Latin American — and “opened up a more expansive terrain in which Hispana creativity could take place.”
Lewthwaite’s study is an important contribution to art historical and regional scholarship, deservedly highlighting the works of these and other unquestionably modern Hispano artists and demanding reconsideration of narratives that simplify.
“A Contested Art” by Stephanie Lewthwaite was published by University of Oklahoma Press in 2015.
Patrocinio Barela: Untitled
(Kneeling Man), juniper