SANTA FE —— Alex Harris’ full-color photograph frames northern New Mexico’s Black Mesa through a 1957 Chevy windshield.
The 1987 print validates the way many travelers see the West, absorbing its mountains and mesas, its forests and buildings, through a horizontal pane of glass.
“Social & Sublime: Land, Place and Art: A Look at the Artists’ American Southwest” documents the kaleidoscopic lenses artists have used to express ever-changing ideas of land, place and the people inhabiting them.
Open at the New Mexico Museum of Art, the exhibition will hang through Aug. 25. The show spans 100 years of 19th- and 20th-century artists, including such prime names as Georgia O’Keeffe, Andrew Dasburg, Alfred Bierdstadt, Raymond Jonson, Stuart Davis, Luis Jiménez, Gustave Baumann and more. It weaves through a constellation of art movements, including modernism, abstraction, documentary photography, regionalism and cubism.
“The common threads are an approach to land and the environment,” curator Christian Waguespack said.
Waguespack organized the groupings according to wilderness, frontier, landscape and ecology.
Early American artists accepted the prevailing thought that this was a nation without history. Despite all evidence to the contrary, these settlers saw the land as empty, vast and unspoiled, as depicted in Bierdstadt’s heroic image of “Mount Chocorua, New Hampshire.”
The stagecoach, train and car made the frontier more easily accessible and the mythic cowboy of popular culture surfaced. Artists Billy Schenck, Ross Stefan and Betty Hahn addressed this epic persona in their work.
By 1923, the modernist Stuart Davis arrived in New Mexico intimidated by the famous light that others had celebrated. Instead of capturing the state’s primary colors and rugged contours, Stuart rendered it in black and white, focusing on the forms.
“He got out here and was completely overwhelmed,” Waguespack said. “He took off all the color and reduced it to shapes.”
Other modern artists used landscape as a tool for visual experimentation and abstraction.
In 1966, Dasburg’s “Talpa Winter” reduced the snow-blanketed landscape and boxy adobe homes to cubist contours. In “Earth Rhythms #2,” Jonson translated the vista into smooth abstract forms inspired by music. The artist worked as a theater designer.
“He did it in Chicago and it was a remembrance of New Mexico,” Waguespack said. “I see that painting as a beautiful backdrop for any 20th-century play or opera set in New Mexico.”
“Raymond Jonson and the Transcendentalists were interested in new forms of abstraction,” Waguespack continued. “He looked to music to incorporate abstraction into visual arts.”
Environmentalist artists used their work to critique society’s relationship with the ecosystems. Patrick Nagatani and Judy Chicago took destructive practices polluting the earth as their subject matter. Michael Namingha makes photographs of landscapes with airborne drones to avoid any destructive impact on the environment.
Harris, Luis Tapia and Meridel Rubenstein reflect on experiencing the land from behind a dashboard, rejoicing in the state’s vibrant Lowrider car culture.
“It’s the idea of experiencing the land from behind a windshield,” Waguespack said. “The way we experience a landscape is framed by that device.”