ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In 1990, the CAFÉ contemporary gallery emerged in Downtown Albuquerque next to a porn shop and across from the public defender’s office.
Arts supporter and collector Ray Graham remodeled and opened the space now housing 516 ARTS to exhibit cutting-edge New Mexico artists. It served as a community gathering space during a time of Albuquerque corporate exodus.
Beginning on Saturday, March 23, “In Our Own Backyard” will showcase works by CAFÉ artists both then and now at 516 ARTS.
Open from 1990-1995, CAFÉ exhibited everything from paintings, photographs and installations to a disappearing photo booth. Its tentacles ran from artists in Taos to Roswell and included such notable names as Jane Abrams, Margaret Bagshaw, Barbara Grothus, David Koch, Delilah Montoya, John Wenger and Jerry West, among many others.
“It was extremely important for contemporary artists,” 516 ARTS executive director Suzanne Sbarge said. “There were galleries here, but there wasn’t a place for contemporary artists who were doing cutting-edge work. What (Graham) set in motion in 1990 is still alive.”
Grothus exhibited her found object-meets-welding “Tree/House” at CAFÉ in 1995. The sculpture features a welded house attached to a steel tree. At its feet lies a box holding a bird’s nest and egg.
“My work has always been about home,” the artist said. “That can include anything like the land or of place using that child-like image of a house with a roof.”
At the time, the downtown area was nothing like the vibrant arts center it is today, she said.
“Certainly we have a more stable art scene now than we did in the ’90s. The difference between an opening at 516 now and CAFÉ then is enormous in terms of the people who show up.”
Grothus is working on a new piece referencing the original. She gathered materials from a Los Alamos fire, as well as objects from her late father’s now-defunct Black Hole surplus store.
“I have a treasure trove of materials from there,” she said. “We’re really talking about environmental collapse. There’s sort of a nest involved. We’re destroying our ability to survive on the planet by the destruction of the insects.”
Photographer Delilah Montoya showed her University of New Mexico graduate school work at CAFÉ in 1993. Today she has created a series of photographs of mixed-race families in a nod to Spanish colonial casta portraits of racial hierarchies. The more Spanish you were, the more privileges you could claim, including education, inheritance and running for public office.
“They were demonstrating the cleanliness of the blood,” said Montoya, who divides her time between teaching at the University of Houston and her Albuquerque home. “If you bred back into the Spanish lineage you could breed back into being Spanish. You had to go back four generations.
“Black blood couldn’t be cleansed,” she continued. “Think about our racial politics in the U.S. Obama was mixed-race, but he was considered to be black. We’re still doing that.”
Painter David Koch staged his first solo show at CAFÉ in 1992.
“There was nothing else like it in the city,” he said. “It was really kind of an honor for me to be in the gallery.”
Koch showed a series of 20 paintings of crumpled, wrecked cars. The images grew from a middle-aged crisis.
“I had a divorce and realized I had a drinking problem all at the same time,” he said.
He had always drawn cars as a child.
“As an adult, I had wrecked three cars,” he continued. “And my relationships were a wreck. I was really interested in image as metaphor.”
Koch combed insurance and personal websites for images of crashed cars and created the series with minimal backgrounds.
“They’re all probably reparable,” he said. “I love the idea that the car is an elevated object in our culture.”
For Sbarge, the exhibition is a continuum of the history of 516 ARTS, with each generation building on the last.
For its founder Graham, CAFÉ stood for “Contemporary Art for Everyone.”