New Mexico: New Art – Part III

The Revere of the Ravine. . .

Part III in this excerpted series beginning at Part I: Land of Enchantment and Part II. . . (again, reworked slightly for this blog).
New Mexico’s stunning landscape has inspired an aesthetic mystique rooted in the deep tradition of romanticism.  In romanticism, feeling, spiritualism, creativity, and a love of the landscape drive the artistic process as does the exploration of the psyche (both good and bad) via the creative act of art-making (think of the historical references of Lord Byron and his cohorts and in modernist times Kandinsky’s emotive colour theories and Georgia O’Keefe’s naturalist sensuality). 

This enigmatic creative process is still very much alive today in New Mexico with a local art publication speaking of the “deep spiritual connection to something greater”; “awaking every morning to inspiration outside the door”; “emotional response”; and “a love of wildlife”. 

The search for the Sublime
Skyline over Petroglyph National Monument, NM

Such art work also flourishes in the 100 plus galleries that make up the mall-like spread of Canyon Road in Santa Fe and line the museum walls narrating an often nostalgic and idyllic past of the wild frontier.

Within this romantic tradition, ancient rites are frequently entwined with this creative quest to express transcendence via the sublime. In comparable measures, Native American art work is equally subjected and objected across the New Mexican cultural landscape.  Curio shops; picturesque portraitures; and numerous folk and craft art fairs exalt this respect for the ‘noble savages’ of times past.  Of course, the Native American culture of the southwest is still very much a living culture and much of the art and craftwork is worth its weight in gold (as the conquistador Cortes allegedly told the emissaries of Montezuma ‘that he and his people suffered from a disease of the heart that could only be cured by gold’). 

Skyline over Coronado State Monument
Skyline over Coronado State Monument

This said, historical cultural sites like that of Coronado State Monument bring into question just how this past is interpreted.  Named after the Spanish venturer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado who occupied and settled the area in the 1500s, the site is located a short distance from the city of Albuquerque and comprises the terrain of an ancient Tiwa village. As part of the 1930s New Deal public programs ‘reconstructed new ruin walls’ mark out portions of the site including a ceremonial Tiwa kiva (a since archived article by architect Suzette Lam discusses the design and cultural decisions to ‘replicate’ the site).  One only need look at the ongoing controversies surrounding the memorialization of the World Trade Centers in New York to see how divisive these considerations can become.

Coronoda ruin walls
Coronado National Monument Reconstructed ‘Ruin’ walls

Archaeological excavations of the kiva included a series of Pre-European murals, with several examples of these works on display at the center’s visitor center.  I can say that I experienced a heart-wrenching admiration in viewing these crumbling murals and wrote to inquire about one of the more potent and transfixing of these frescoes: a scene depicting a medicine man urinating his potion.  I received an email in reply indicating that “images of the Kiva Murals of Kuaua are culturally sensitive. . .and [they] cannot authorize any reproduction or use of those images.” The only exception to this rule is the image of the Rabbit displayed here.


I’m not really sure what to say about this…information on the center’s website notes that these murals are some of the “finest examples of Pre-Columbian art ever found in the United States” and yet the gatekeepers of history allow only limited access and as such, knowledge of their existence. Who can see, who is allowed to remember, and how. . .

But New Mexico’s spectacular expanses also offer some of the country’s most treasured artworks right out in the open, as is the case of the centuries’ old illustrations found at Petroglyph National Monument, a volcanic canvas of black rock rising straight out of the suburbs of Albuquerque.

Suburbs of Albuquerque from the cliffs of Petroglyph National Monument

These shadowy apparitions emerge depending on the slant of the sun and include depictions of hummingbirds, snakes, turtles, the mythical trickster deity of fertility and music, Kokopelli, the ‘graffiti’ additions of early-Spanish settlers, and even a few alien-like creatures.

But these are post-modern times and the swelling suburbs encroaching upon the wide-open space of the land also provide a measure of reality against falling into a ravine.  New Mexico, with such a wealth of natural wonders is also a major extractor of natural resources, gas, coal, and until recently uranium (the key ingredient in nuclear power and whose mining resulted in extensive radiation related deaths and disease within the Navajo Nation).  And not forgotten is Albuquerque’s propensity for illegal substances depicted in the offset fictionalized account of ‘Breaking Bad’ and the city’s contentious standing as a preferred setting for the real-life ‘cops and robbers’ show, ‘Cops’.   And how is it, that in the face of such majesty, the combined brain power of Los Alamos birthed not an alchemical dream but the nightmare of the nuclear bomb?  Under such conditions, the creation of art flourishes as if this rupture of contradiction also acts as a point of illumination.


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