Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The abstracted architecture shimmers and folds across an acrylic canvas in phosphorescent hues that both beckon and disturb.
Michael Namingha’s (Tewa-Hopi) operatic “Altered Landscapes” series is abstract, photography-based work. The bent angles juxtapose geometric shapes in bright neon colors against black-and-white aerial landscapes from the Four Corners region. The artist mounted the compositions to shaped plexiglass, creating the illusion of sculpture.
These images don’t shout. They record the environmental impact of the oil and gas industry, and imply references to the artist’s Indigenous ancestry.
Namingha says it all started during a slide lecture at New York’s Parsons School of Design.
“I remember seeing ‘The Black Place’ painting (by Georgia O’Keeffe) and wondering where it was,” Namingha said. “It was so abstract, I thought it was two clouds together with a bolt of lightning in the middle.”
Namingha later researched the painting at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and learned of the artist’s camping trips to the Galisteo Basin she called “The Black Place.”
In 2014, Namingha used Google Earth to locate the exact spot. On federal land about a mile from the turnoff to Chaco Canyon, “The Black Place” is surrounded by evidence of the world’s energy needs: oil rigs, pipelines, storage pads; the detritus of fracking.
He had begun to explore shaped photography as a result of feeling frustrated by being confined to a square or a rectangle.
A turning point came when he attended the Metropolitan Opera during a break at the New Museum incubator program for creative people.
“I was intrigued by opera set design, not only here, but also in New York City,” he said. “I went to the Met quite a bit. I loved the music (of ‘La Boheme’) so much that I went to see it twice. I realized how far the set designs work to trick the viewer’s eye … and how they trick perspective.”
The stage was slanted at an angle; an apartment building loomed larger in the front than in the back.
“It made it more realistic,” Namingha said.
He began moving the center of his aerial photographs to the center, bookending the sides toward the back.
Namingha’s “Altered Landscape 11,” although taken in Santa Fe in 2019, was inspired by the results of a Canadian wildfire that billowed over New York in 2020.
“I was on the West Side near the meatpacking district,” he said. “The sun was this intense red ball. The clouds were orange and pink. People were stopping taking photographs.
“I started thinking about growing up in New Mexico and how prominent fire season has become,” he said. “Last summer, we had multiple fires. The smoke was coming from California. When all these fires were burning, we would have an air quality index color every day. So I started to incorporate some of those colors into the landscape.”
Some of the works feature black bands to represent pieces of the landscape that could be lost, he added.
“Altered Landscape 9, with its metal structure, gas line and pump, is the only image containing the obvious imprint of oil and gas extraction, Namingha said.
“Those are within spitting distance of where O’Keeffe used to go camping with (photographer) Maria Chabot.”
Georgia O’Keeffe referred to the softly rounded gray formations on either side of N.M. 550 as a “mile of elephants.” Namingha saw something else.
“As I was zooming in and out, I saw that what looked like parking lots were actually drilling pads,” he said
The artist journeyed to “The Black Place” carrying a single tool – a drone camera – so as not to damage the fragile land that crumbled into ash at the touch of a hand. At his first visit in 2017, he encountered a member of the Environmental Defense Fund who said NASA scientists had photographed the area above “The Black Place.”
“NASA discovered the largest methane gas cloud in North America,” Namingha said. “It showed up on their satellite images as red and yellow, so I used those colors in the compositions.”
Back home, he divided, shifted and pulled the images using commands such as “skew” and “distort.” The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum displayed the results in 2018 as part of a series of contemporary artists creating responses to O’Keeffe’s work.