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Under the Mushroom cloud

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico’s staggering beauty shelters its secrets in both caverns and concrete.

Its rocky edifices shelter and nurture ancient cultures dating back millennia. The state also midwifed the birth of the atomic bomb, a legacy with an astronomical half-life.

Much has been written and created about growing up in the shadows of this unimaginable power. “Atomic Surplus,” open at Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts, was organized to comment on and illustrate a multiplicity of perspectives on this conflicted birthright, never black or white, but often unfathomably gray. Funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the exhibition is located in the Muñoz Waxman Gallery. CCA has partnered with the Los Alamos Historical Society and the Santa Fe Art Institute to offer related education programs for both Santa Fe and Los Alamos high school students. CCA Cinematheque director Jason Silverman has developed a film series to accompany the project.

Most viewers will register instant recognition for the Google snippets of the atomic decades —— “Oppenheimer,” “Cold War,” “Three Mile Island,” “Chernobyl” and more recently, “Fukushima.” There’s that chilling but familiar film footage of the Trinity Site mushroom cloud, the goofy apocalypse of “Dr. Strangelove,” the almost laughable incompetence of a basement bomb shelter, complete with canned goods and admonitions to “duck and cover.”

Nearly 70 years later, the debate still rages with equal doses of both possibility and paranoia.

CCA director of visual arts Erin Elder grew up within the aura of Colorado’s Rocky Flats while her father worked for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, otherwise known as “Star Wars.” Its highly secured Cheyenne Mountain bunker provided a topic of schoolyard gossip among Colorado Springs children. Like all nuclear-related sites, it was shrouded in secrecy.

“We’re all aware of the nuclear industry and the bomb,” Elder said. “But I wanted to connect that with more contemporary issues.”

She skipped established artists such as New Mexico’s Patrick Nagatani, noted for his work on atomic issues, in favor of more current voices. Elder gathered together 12 artists, several from New Mexico, others from as far away as France, Japan and Switzerland. The work shown encompasses an assortment of media, including film, drawing, painting, photography and sound.

Santa Fe Art Institute residency director and artist Nina Elder grew up near Cheyenne Mountain with her sister Erin. “My sister and I used to imagine (our father) going into a huge robot hidden in the mountain,” she said.

Nina leafed through formerly classified government photographs to produce graphite and radioactive charcoal drawings. Anything compressed under high heat becomes radioactive, she explained —— from charcoal to diamonds.

“I love hiking and I love being out in the mountains,” she said. “I was really disturbed by the huge forest fires. In a state where there is so much atomic waste, we’re the worst-case scenario.”

She finds a kind of terrible beauty in her sketches of “Jumbo” and “The Gadget” (Oppenheimer’s nicknames for the bomb).

The impetus for exploring nuclear issues through art came when Nina taught a class of 20-somethings in San Francisco. When she asked them what generation had been most impacted by the atomic bomb, most chose their great-great grandparents. In other words, they believed nuclear capability pre-dated the Civil War.

“If it didn’t happen in their lifetime, they don’t really know where to place it,” she said.

The 9/11 attacks triggered the childhood nuclear fears of Albuquerque’s Claudia X. Valdes. That terror catalyzed a decade of work focused on U.S. nuclear arms, titled “Ten Million Degrees.”

“I found myself experiencing a very heightened state of anxiety,” she said in a telephone interview from Albuquerque. “My sister lives in New York. Her route to school included the subway system under the World Trade Center. I went a whole day without hearing from my sister. It was horrible.”

That fear circled back to her childhood worries.

“I think it was just the era of the 1980s,” she said. “There was a lot of working out of the Cold War era. And there was the whole ‘duck and cover’ strategy. I was constantly strategizing for survival.”

Valdes’ digital video piece “192:291” shows the first TV broadcast of an atmospheric bomb test in Nevada in 1953 narrated by Walter Cronkite, repeated like some kind of sinister mosaic. The first figure in the title comes from the number of recognized countries in the World Almanac. The second represents the length of the piece: 291 seconds, or nearly five minutes.

“You see the explosion,” Valdes explained. “I tiled it 192 times. I was inspired by war games —— kind of like video games. So what you see is a virtual destruction of the world in five minutes.”

Repeated exposure to television and film mushroom clouds has innoculated us from their implications, she explained.

“I’m trying to re-infuse the subject as trauma, hopefully to evoke in the viewer an affective response —— emotional, physical, psychological response.”

Santa Fe painter Greta Young slashed her 2012 “Shadows” with violent brushstrokes, looming deep shadows and hands raised in both horror and protection against a glowing gold object that may or may not be a blast, a flame or a bomb.

It still surprises her that people react to her work that way.

“It comes about sort of organically,” she said of her process. “I didn’t have anything in mind.”

To link her painting more directly to the exhibition’s atomic theme, she wrote a poem containing the lines, “Beauty in Los Alamos, a brain/rife with nuclear blasts/awe inspiring/awe in terror, waste and radiation./Its drip./Can it seep into us?”

“It’s a little scary,” Young said, re-visiting her composition. “Now that I see it, it seems kind of foreboding.”

Young has lived in New Mexico since 1973. The state’s dichotomy both as a tourist playground and a nuclear site sometimes ignites her fears.

“I’m sort of a hypochondriac,” she said. “So when I hear about that stuff, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what if there’s something in the water?’

“I think there’s something in the background of everywhere you can live,” she added, “something dangerous like California earthquakes. It’s like being on a piece of Jell-O or something.”