Art in Review
Along the Pecos
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