ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Hispanic Traditional Arts of New Mexico” is a new exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum that’s more than an opportunity for visitors to admire some 120 works of art spanning about 200 years.
Andrew Connors, who curated the exhibit, wants patrons to rethink the question, What makes art “traditional”?
Take, for example, the case of silversmith Juan López, whose delicate silver filigree hummingbird sipping nectar from a silver filigree flower is in the exhibit. Is his art traditional if his technique and style are, but his subject matter and tools are not?
“He probably used a gas torch, electric soldering iron and electric polishing equipment,” said Connors, who is the museum’s curator of art.
López, an Albuquerque resident, created the piece 11 years ago.
“He has the capacity to duplicate historic example, but he loves pushing historic technique into contemporary imagery,” Connors said.
Or consider santero Horacio Valdez, the late Dixon carpenter. In the 1970s, Connors said, Valdez’s work “functioned as historic objects but were not carved and painted according to historic technique and materials.”
“Valdez used acrylic paint that he bought and premixed at the store. He used power saws and electric drills when needed,” Connors explained. Do the use of 20th-century tools exclude the art from being “traditional”?
Connors doesn’t think so. He argues that tradition isn’t static.
“We use the word ‘traditional’ in this context very specifically because many people assume traditions never change. But through all of human history the thing that keeps traditions alive is the ability to adapt and change and remain relevant to the times,” he said.
He added that in the 1920s art collectors and scholars pushed the revitalization of Hispanic art forms, identifying traditional methods and materials they deemed historically “authentic.”
The “authenticity” refers to the methods and materials artists used in New Mexico’s Spanish Colonial era, from the mid-16th century to the 1820s.
Even today, there are artists, collectors and scholars who subscribe to this historic standard of authenticity, and there’s an opposing camp who are interested in innovation, new materials and new subject matter, Connors said.
“I feel Horacio Valdez is as ‘authentic’ as anyone in this exhibition because he did what he needed to do to make culturally relevant, stunning objects. And by doing so, he became the tradition of the late 20th century,” he said.
What’s important about this exhibit, Connors said, is that it shows artists are constantly innovating, inventing and reinventing.
Connors said if he were an artist he’d hate to be told what he needs to do to be an artist. “If we were to allow living artists to use only historic techniques and materials, we would limit the public’s opportunity to experience the full diversity of creativity,” he added.
So the word “traditional” in the exhibit title is a kind of lightning rod for reactions.
Every person will come to see the art with their own expectations about what “traditional” is, Connors said, and visitors will certainly see examples of art that don’t fit with their own definitions of the word.
Besides silver and gold objects and religious images, the show also presents weaving and colcha embroidery, tinwork and straw appliqué.
The works in the exhibit are all drawn from the museum’s collections. None is borrowed from the museum’s “Four Centuries” history exhibit nor from the museum’s Casa San Ysidro: The Gutiérrez/Minge House in Corrales.
Most of the pieces in the new exhibit are from the 20th century, though two are so new that were completed just days ago.
One of those is a work by Old Town santero Adán Carriaga, who is carving and painting the three archangels. The other is a piece by Alcario Otero of Tomé. It’s of a Christ Child in a nicho.
The Otero and the Carriaga works are being donated to the museum, Connors said.
Connors said that López, the silversmith, made a silver crown for Otero’s carving. That demonstrates how López lives in two artistic worlds. He created a crown for a traditional work and on the other he uses nontraditional imagery in his filigree jewelry.
“The museum,” Connors said, “has always celebrated that diversity of artistic inspiration. So we can celebrate an artist who maintains a 200-year-old tradition in the same way we celebrate an artist who creates something unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.”