Art in Re­view

Along the Pe­cos

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Jen­nifer Sch­lesinger orig­i­nally en­vi­sioned her ex­hibit Along the Pe­cos to be shown in a win­dow­less dark room with black walls, the only avail­able light to be di­rected at her prints of sub­jects taken on the Pe­cos River in North­ern New Mex­ico. She i ntended for vis­i­tors to sit on the f loor while com­poser Steven Miller’s evoca­tive and un­der­stated sound­scape, com­pris­ing sounds recorded at var­i­ous points along the river, per­me­ated the room. “We wanted it to be a vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence,” Sch­lesinger told Pasatiempo.

At the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum, vis­it­ing Along the Pe­cos is a less im­mer­sive en­gage­ment for vis­i­tors than the artists in­tended. The in­stal­la­tion, set in the sec­ond-f loor hall­way out­side the Cow­den Café, is ar­ranged more like a tra­di­tional mu­seum ex­hibit; none­the­less, it’s hard not to be se­duced by Sch­lesinger’s pho­to­graphs. The images form part of her Earth Se­ries, made be­tween 2003 and 2005. Sch­lesinger is a dark­room pho­tog­ra­pher, one of few in the re­gion who still work with tra­di­tional pro­cesses such as craft­ing al­bu­men prints. The prints in Along the Pe­cos are gelatin sil­ver. Sch­lesinger’s Earth

Se­ries prints are high- con­trast, lu­mi­nous images of na­ture. The sub­ject of each one is in­di­vid­u­ated, a sin­gle ob­ject sur­rounded by dark­ness, not un­like what the artists had en­vi­sioned for the vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence of Along the Pe­cos. Sch­lesinger’s black-and-white pho­to­graphs are at once oth­er­worldly and in­ti­mate. A writer might strug­gle for a word that cap­tures their sense of com­bined beauty and mourn­ful pres­ence: Per­haps the word is sub­lime.

The leaves in Earth Pat­tern XXIV, the horse­tails in Earth Pat­tern X, and the shim­mer­ing sur­face of the Pe­cos River in Earth Pat­tern VII never feel di­vorced from the en­vi­ron­ment in which they were pho­tographed, de­spite those en­vi­ron­ments be­ing al­most com­pletely oblit­er­ated by the deep­est of shad­ows, or lying be­yond the reach of pen­e­trat­ing light. The light that strikes the sub­jects — clus­ters of grass; leaves; the uni­form, hexag­o­nal pat­tern of a bees’ nest; and the other or­ganic fea­tures of a land­scape — is as bright as the moon. Sch­lesinger shot th­ese images dur­ing day­light hours, which might ac­count, along with dark­room artistry, for the sense that they ex­ist out of time, in a place that is nei­ther day nor night. “Th­ese earth stud­ies re­ally set off every­thing I’ve done since,” Sch­lesinger said. “They were teach­ing me how to see and look at how the light hits ob­jects in na­ture.”

Miller’s sound­scape weaves to­gether the voices of the river: bird calls, the noise of ve­hi­cles echo­ing down from a high­way over­pass, t he drone of a plane f lying over­head, and t he whoosh of the wa­ter rush­ing over river stones. The in­ter­play be­tween sound and im­age rep­re­sents mo­ments on the r iver, en­coun­ters with pres­ences as com­mon as a blade of grass or the chirp of an in­sect, but that are in­vested with mys­tery. “Steven had been mak­ing th­ese record­ings along the Pe­cos and came to me in 2003, I think, and asked if I’d be in­ter­ested in col­lab­o­rat­ing with him do­ing the vi­su­als,” Sch­lesinger said. “A lot of the pho­to­graphs were al­ready be­ing de­vel­oped just by hap­pen­stance. The first time we had done this in­stal­la­tion was at the Col­lege of Santa Fe in 2005, I be­lieve it was. The first time was re­ally med­i­ta­tive and calm­ing. Now when I sit with it, it’s that way, but it also brings back the mem­ory of my friend.” Miller died from amy­otrophic lat­eral scle­ro­sis (ALS) in 2014 af­ter a rapid de­cline in health.

Along the Pe­cos has no di­dac­tic pur­pose, but serves its own end as an aes­thetic ap­pre­ci­a­tion of na­ture. It leaves the viewer no an­chor to sit­u­ate him­self or her­self ge­o­graph­i­cally, although a map ac­com­pa­nies the ex­hibit and pro­vides a guide to the artist’s con­fla­tion of the long river’s sights and sounds into a quiet, soul­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The in­stal­la­tion seems to have more to do with the spirit of place than with place it­self. More­over, it can pro­duce a long­ing that a phys­i­cal en­counter with the river can’t nec­es­sar­ily match, be­cause it’s a long­ing for the in­tan­gi­ble, for the light in the dark and what it reveals. It is not doc­u­men­ta­tion but interpretive por­trai­ture.

Along the Pe­cos re­mains on view for sev­eral months, and has been do­nated to the mu­seum for its per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. It’s a small in­stal­la­tion, but its cap­tured mo­ments are also small: haunted, mod­est, and mag­i­cal. — Michael Abatemarco

ALONG THE PE­COS, New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum, 113 Lin­coln Ave., 505- 476-5200; through July 25

Jen­nifer Sch­lesinger: Earth Map I (quad­tych of wa­ter), 2004; top, Earth Map III (dip­tych of grasses), 2004; toned gelatin sil­ver prints

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