Art experts have often pigeonholed New Mexican wood carving into categories of folk art and/or Hispanic colonial art.
A new exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art argues otherwise.
“We look at it as modern and contemporary art,” said Christian Waguespack, the museum’s head of curatorial affairs. “They haven’t been given their due.”
These artists used the simplest of tools – chisels, hammers and sandpaper – pairing them with local wood, including cedar, aspen, mesquite and cottonwood to fashion saints, religious figures, trees, animals and more.
Often grouped with the New Mexican santeros (saint carvers), many of these figures expand well beyond the category of religious imagery, moving into deep human emotions.
José Dolores López (1868-1937) of Cordova drew on the traditions of the early santeros such as José Aragón and José Rafael Aragón. He presented his work in its original unfinished state after learning there was more of a market for unpainted figures. He influenced a generation of carvers.
“Their style was to work with the nature and imperfections of the wood, incorporating the twists and turns, the knots and cracks, to create unique pieces that would never be reproduced,” Waguespack said. “This exhibition will offer a look at the unique pieces ways these modern and contemporary New Mexican artists work in harmony with their materials and with the natural environment.”
Patrocinio Barela (1900-1964) was a key figure in this genre, with 35 of his bordering-on-Surrealist sculptures featured in the show. Barela took a modernist approach, following the grain of the wood using the natural forms, curves and bumps to shape his pieces.
Born in Bisbee, Arizona, Barela spent most of his life in Taos.
Barela rose to art world celebrity in the 1930s, an unlikely prospect for someone of his background. He had left home at age 11 following the death of his mother and sister to travel around the Southwest in search of work. He ended up as a laborer in Denver before getting married and settling in New Mexico in 1930.
Asked to reconstruct a damaged wooden bulto (a devotional carving), Barela then began making his own wooden sculptures.
In contrast to traditional bultos, made from multiple individually carved elements, his creations radically reinvented the genre, as they were directly carved from a single piece of wood.
His prodigious output soon caught the eye of Russell Vernon Hunter, artist and state director of the Works Progress Administration, who signed Barela up for the Federal Art Project. By the summer of 1936, Barela’s sculptures were on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. In September, they appeared in New Horizons in American Art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In the wake of the exhibition, Time magazine crowned Barela its “Discovery of the Year.”
“They’re very abstract, very organic shapes,” Waguespack said. “His work is very surreal. They’re very imagined and fantasized. They go in and out of being recognizable. That’s one of the things that made him so popular with modern artists.”
The artist’s carvings are motivated by his own metaphysical relationship to Christianity. In showing religious subjects through an abstracted style, he intended for his works to provoke the viewer’s imagination into entering a spiritually symbolic vision.
Barela’s death cart features no skeletons. Instead, his “Carreta de la Muerte” (1953) contains a mysterious, abstracted figure crawling atop the cart like a ghost.
“Death carts are popular in New Mexico,” Waguespack said, “but he’s got his own spin on it. He’s taking something that is pretty standard, but he makes it pretty much his.”
Death carts originated in medieval Europe before crossing the Atlantic, he explained.
Barela’s “Worries” (c. 1950) exposes the contorted agony of its inner torment through the figure’s twisted limbs.
Michael B. Ortega’s “La Muerte” (1986) adds a touch of humor to its grim subject.
“The details all come from the natural formation of the wood,” Waguespack said. “The face is grotesque, but almost funny in a way. He’s kind of making fun of death.”
Ricardo Lopez’s “Tree of Life” (1980) turns the story of Adam and Eve into a celebration of nature, its branches alighted by birds.
“These artists decided to focus on the natural aspect,” Waguespack said. “In this one, the tree is front and center.
“I thought it was important to have this exhibit here,” Waguespack continued. “I don’t think these materials have been brought together this way. It was to give this work its moment in the sun.”