ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The road I took to Taos a while back was paved with good intentions. I was on the next-to-last leg of my journey through the “ISEA 2012 Albuquerque: Machine Wilderness” exhibition series.
The University of New Mexico Harwood Museum of Art in Taos is hosting “Falling Without Fear,” “Curiosity: From the Faraway Nearby,” “Charles Luna” and “Inigo Manglano-Ovalle: Juggernaut” as part of the ISEA 2012 series through Jan. 27.
Maybe it was the altitude or the fact that winter had actually arrived in town, applying snow to every surface with an underlayer of ice, or it could have been the yummy brunch my wife and I had at a local bistro.
All I know with certainty is that I lost my resolve once inside the cosy galleries that constitute the Harwood Museum of Art. Instead of focusing my attention on the continuous loop, machine bad, wilderness good, videos and still photos of powerlines, UFOs and mine tailings, I wandered upstairs where I discovered “Unbound,” a mixed-media solo show by 13th-generation Taos native Maye Torres.
Maybe it was her work’s lack of worldly angst or the strange juxtaposition between her two-dimensional drawings and paintings and her mostly floating-in-space mixed-media figurative sculpture. Once my attention was divided between Torres’ neo-expressionism and the Ellis-Clarke Taos Moderns Gallery next door, I knew that with the exception of the Agnes Martin Gallery, that the shows downstairs weren’t going to make the review.
In her sculpture Torres weaves spirit bodies out of organic materials to support ceramic heads and hands. Historically her works have the spatial ambiguity and ephemeral qualities of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints called “pictures of the floating world” (1690-1850) that revealed the impermanence of life by illustrating seasonal change, lovers’ relationships and other fleeting subjects.
To illustrate impermanence Torres offers “The Last of the Mohicans,” a woven and modeled ceramic sculpture that embodies the DNA helix that diminishes in scale as it spirals toward the floor. The whole open-armed figure floats just above the surface as if turning to smoke like the memory of a dream.
Her acrylic and pencil drawing “Samba Pa Tl” is a four-panel depiction of a classically rendered male figure whose thoughts seem to manifest as a horn of plenty wherein countless Mesoamerican figures flow through his grasp. Torres uses warm-toned black and white to render the male figure while his thoughts are in glorious color to perhaps suggest the reality of thoughts and dreams verses the illusion of wakefulness.
Torres, though born in Taos, spent part of her youth in El Salvador and Ecuador, where the arts are also central to daily life. Torres’ early years seem to have instilled earth magic into her subconscious.
In the next gallery are many treasures including a medium-sized Larry Bell, two small jewel-like abstract paintings by Charles Strong and a drop-dead-gorgeous “Untitled” ink and charcoal rendering by Tony Abeyta. The whole upstairs made me feel like a kid in a toy shop.
Marcel Duchamp never painted the “Critic Descending the Staircase” but I felt as disassembled as his famous 1911 “Nude Descending the Staircase” when I landed back on the ground floor and fled my demons by ambling into the Agnes Martin Gallery.
Martin was a gadabout in her youth while pursuing abstract expressionism. Somewhere along the line she discovered inner serenity and began leading a more contemplative life which produced the minimalist aesthetic that made her famous.
Sculptor Karen Yank, who was a student of Martin and a lifelong friend saw Martin as a beacon of inspiration who taught Yank to express abstract emotions and to minimize time-consuming worldly distractions.
Martin’s work continues to inspire young artists and those who take the time to understand her paintings. As a teacher she never required students to clone her work. Instead she wanted them to find their own path.
The museum bookstore has an instructive catalog titled “Agnes Martin: Before the Grid” that beautifully covers her early career.
For lovers of contemporary art and those who truly appreciate the international effort to bring art to the hinterlands that ISEA represents, the downstairs exhibitions may be well worth a trip to Taos, but I was clearly distracted by the plethora of other neat stuff hanging around the rest of the museum.