New Mex­ico myth bust­ing A Con­tested Art by Stephanie Lewth­waite

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Grace La­batt Paraz­zoli

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

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