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Surrender to Taos show of portraits

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Taos means “the place of red willows” in the Tiwa language.

As the legend goes, if Taos Mountain calls you there to make art, you have little choice but to surrender.

The town has long served as a beacon to artists and writers and, perhaps above all, characters: think Dennis Hopper in the plaza sans pants and with rifle, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s salons, hippies, communes and even Po’pay’s 1680 revolt.

If you go
WHAT: “Red Willow: Portraits of a Town”
WHEN: Through May 5
WHERE: Harwood Museum of Art, Mandelman-Ribak Gallery, 238 Ledoux St., Taos
HOW MUCH: $10 adults; $8 seniors (65+) and students. Free to children 12 and under and to members, University of New Mexico students and staff, and to Taos County residents on Sundays. Call 575-758-9826 or go to www.harwoodmuseum.org

Known lately for its edgy, often digitally informed exhibitions, the Harwood Museum of Art has returned home for a show of portraits. “Red Willow: Portraits of a Town” runs through May 5.

Taos artists have long depicted some of the town’s favorite and infamous characters.

Joseph Imhof often sketched the people at Taos Pueblo. Taos Modernist Emil Bisttram painted a portrait of the agriculturalist and cowboy Bing Abbott. Although it appears to be a contemporary rendition of a slick but questionable character, it was painted in 1932.

“I love the Bing Abbott,” Harwood curator Jina Brenneman said. “To me, it looks like a man on the brink of suicide. It’s very dark.”

The sitter’s prominent hands dominate the foreground, the right holding a 10-ounce highball while his left rests worshipfully on a pistol like a Bible. Bing’s family “squatted” on the Purgatory River along the northern border of the Maxwell Land Grant.

Guns often figured prominently in claims disputes. His cowboy hat appears as a dark halo, both referencing and upending the golden halos of Christian icons. However, most Taoseños remember Bing as a carpenter and generous soul.

Joseph Fleck’s portrait of Doña Flor cements Taos’ rich Hispanic legacy placed defiantly against dramatic skies.

“It’s this beautiful Hispanic woman with a mantilla,” Brenneman said. “She looks like she’s in mourning.”

The sitter wears a “peineta,” a comb usually made of shell or of tortoise worn at the back of the head to lift both the hair and the scarf.

Fleck arrived in Taos in 1924. He was adept at capturing faces inscribed with the everyday life and resilience of Taos.

Santa Fe’s William Penhallow Henderson portrayed an unknown Taos sitter, his chiseled face beneath a cowboy hat. The subject’s large knuckles mirror the hardscrabble life of work in the West. His image shares the frame with the stature of the mountains rising behind him. Henderson was a sensitive observer of the daily drama of surviving in New Mexico.

Taos Modernist Louis Ribak’s portrait of Eulalia Emetaz uses a limited number of colors in a flattened image. The sitter herself was a champion of modern art. Ribak arrived in Taos in 1944 and acted as mentor to many of the modernists who followed.

Emetaz arrived in Taos in 1929. Her life bridged the presence of early Taos artists, whom she called “the Aspen painters,” and the newer generation that followed. In the portrait, she sits with her arms folded, looking almost restless, poised for an imminent exit. Ribak captured her intensity and energy, Brenneman said.

Emetaz’s Escondida Gallery started as an adventure; it was the first venue for Taos painters pursuing the modern currents in their art. It has been said that the Escondida was the only gallery outside of New York to be dealing exclusively in modernist paintings.

The paintings include Taos furniture designer Jim Wagner’s self-portrait, a painting of Harwood Foundation founder Lucy Case Harwood, and an image of santero Patrociño Barela by sculptor Ted Egri.

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