New Mexico: New Art — Part II

Continued from New Mexico:  New Art — Part I (and 1/2)  

Back in Albuquerque the University of New Mexico comes in a tight second as the city’s largest employer, falling only behind Kirtland Airforce Base.  With Route 66 cutting through the city’s main drag, the congregating buzz of low-riders, hot rods, and bikers, joins together to create a vibrant college-town atmosphere with a renegade-feel simmering underneath.  Rent is cheap compared to other metropolises and while New York and Los Angeles still boast the highest percentage of artists overall (musicians and actors thrown in the mix), the countryside of New Mexico overflows with an abundance of artwork.

Insect-like Sculpture, Turquoise Trail, NM
Insect-like Sculpture, Artist Unknown, Turquoise Trail, NM

UNM’s acclaimed studio and art history department probably exerts some influence on Albuquerque’s outlying areas as students continue to live in the area following their studies. 

Home designed by Bart Prince, dinosaur sculptures, Albuquerque

Sculptural works, reimagined dioramas and all sorts of street and public art liven up Albuquerque’s urban landscape.  City-sponsored work ranges from candy-colored, Technicolor, disco-light displays to freeway overpasses mosaicked into kachinas and geometric Indian textiles.  Gardens all about town sprout large sculptural trees and metal melding into resilient creatures of the desert while the playful knitting craze tops off city-scenes and signposts.

There is a certain element of Art for Art’s Sake running rampant throughout the state mixed in with a good dose of whimsy as if the act of creating artwork is but an extension to the outlying environment.  In the words of curator and professor Libby Lumpkin, “a good comparison is the city Nashville, where every bartender and fry cook is also a singer-songwriter—same in New Mexico, where every clerk and real estate agent is “really” an artist!”

Still the city’s spine is not completely free of neglect–displaced by the advancement of freeways, economic shifts, and change itself–much of the historical Route 66 lies derelict in spots and worn down by the desert elements.  Breathing new life into this modernist past, “Friends of the Orphan Signs” have rescued several signposts of America’s roadside history, converting the forlorn advertisements of boarded-up mom and pop motel chains into fleeting scenes of hippie transcendence.

One such sign, a blazing gemstone held out like a magical cure to the run-down streets below, lights the way to a gallery of Neon Art.

Friends of the Orphan Signs

The shop’s front window display pulsates in the evening heat with what looks like a bullet-hole twinkling in the center of its pane:  the taming of the Wild West never fully complete.
When one thinks of the desert, images of a young Clint Eastwood roasting to death in a ditch come to mind, and there is a certain amount of truth to this picture.  Cowboy hats and southwestern charm abound but nature’s fantastical achievements supersede these manmade fantasies turned reality (or it is the other way around?).  The Mother Nature of New Mexico is not the over-the-top, cathedral-like, show-stopper of Arizona’s Grand Canyon or the burnt-out, burnt-up, terrain of Sin-City, Nevada.  In New Mexico, inspiration appears like a small explosion of light on the horizon.  Nature’s muse nuzzles amongst the hills of Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rock National Monument where the haunting sound of the wind whipping through gorges of smooth sandstone, is surpassed only by the phallic rock extrusions climbing out of the caverns.

Hoodoos, Kasha Katuwe

Spectral wonders dwell within the cavities of an extinct volcanic terrain where the scorching heat descends not into hell but into a cave so cold one shivers viscerally from the sensation of winter, and where a meteoric-green sheet of 3400 year-old ice covers the floor. Of course, there is a reasonable explanation (currents of air trapped in the insulating womb of fossilized lava) but the tomb also conjures up the possibility of concealed space age remains conveniently placed on ice, especially if the legends of Roswell are to hold even but a sliver of truth.

Ice Cave at Bandera Volcano frozen in time, NM

Perhaps these rumored celestial visitations find endorsement in the sky’s never-ending operatic display, for if the gods of old live above, they live above here, in rushing herds of clouds, aching sunsets, lightning that rips the heavens apart from every direction, and full moons weighing in on the night like a magician’s trick coin.  And the air is alive, with the scent of rain, the smell of roasting chilies and the sizzling calls of the cicada.  Whoever said the desert was dead did not visit the desert of New Mexico.


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