SANTA FE – Two substantial exhibitions in New Mexico question the traditions of landscape art. If you're remotely interested the genre, a trip to Santa Fe, with an extension to Albuquerque, is worth the time.
SITE Santa Fe, that fearless bastion of edgy contemporary art, has revived its dormant biennial program with “Unsettled Landscapes.” The sprawling exhibition runs through Jan. 11, 2015. “Christo & Jeanne-Claude: The Tom Golden Collection” currently fills the Albuquerque Museum of Art, but it's only up through Sept. 14. It's a retrospective of sorts and provides an overview of the many projects created by the visionary team of Christo and his late wife.
Most of their oversize conceptual art projects have taken decades to complete, and despite Jeanne-Claude's death in 2009, several are still in the works, including one in Salida. “Over the River” is an ambitious project to drape a translucent fabric over a stretch of the Arkansas River – for only a few days.
This is one of the dreams of the European-born, American earth artists, and the project has been hotly debated. Permissions are still needed. The Salida community is still divided, and in our lifetime, we may or may not see a river corridor under a canopy of silk.
Whatever you think of Christo's wild imagination, he and Jeanne-Claude have covered or wrapped monuments, buildings, bridges and natural features for more than 40 years. The point is to transform a massive object or space, so it is dramatically changed. All the projects are time limited. They're envisioned, assembled and then disappear except for the preliminary drawings, collages and photographic record.
The key words are “transformation” and “temporary.” The key idea is to see the world anew. If you keep an open mind, you may encounter unexpected beauty.
The retrospective serves such discovery. Drawings, videos and artifacts date from Christo's earliest works, such as the 1974 “Running Fence” project in California. Most famous may be New York City's “The Gates,” where hundreds of orange silk banners floated from temporary uprights throughout Central Park.
Funding? Christo has never accepted a handout. He has supported all his projects by selling the preliminary drawings and collages. And if you're befuddled by all this, the exhibit clarifies how Christo operates and how he and Jeanne-Claude reinvented the tradition of Western landscape art. The drawings suggest the same processes many landscape artists go through – observation, rendition and transformation.
In 1995, when SITE Santa Fe opened, it launched what was the only international biennial of contemporary art in the country. Biennials continued until 2011, when the costs of the international enterprise caused a re-evaluation.
This year, the biennial concept has returned with a commitment to exhibitions focusing on contemporary art of the Americas. “Unsettled Landscapes” is the inaugural exhibition of the series.
Three themes run through the show: landscape, territory and trade. It sounds simple and straightforward, but interpretations vary. There's a strong conceptual strain as political, economic, environmental lenses are employed. Clichéd historical narratives about the American West drive – or haunt – more than one work.
Kent Monkman's installation takes up a full room. At a glance, “Bête Noir” looks like a dusty museum diorama. A beautifully painted, conventional Western landscape backs a three-dimensional display of a Native American riding through the desert. A buffalo has been shot and lies dead in the foreground.
Look closely, and the figure is a cross-gendered Native American riding a motorcycle. A dead buffalo lies in the foreground, a flat, abstracted animal figure straight out of Picasso's “Guernica.” Monkman is clearly sending up many clichés.
In addition, there are maps, paintings, video installations, a rebuilt car, film stills and a number of works that pit realistic landscape photographs against idealized images.
One film chronicles a 1982 project commissioned by the Public Art Fund of New York City. It shows artist Agnes Denes walking through a wheat field on a late summer day. Behind her rise the skyscrapers of Manhattan, including the World Trade Center. Denes, another earth artist, planted and harvested wheat in a landfill near the financial district, directly pitting graceful nature against urban artificiality.
That golden field is long gone, and so is the WTC. There's a whiff of nostalgia here as in many of the works. But none of the artists continue the practice of romantic idealization. Instead, they turn an impassioned eye to upending traditional definitions of landscape art.
email@example.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, art historian and arts journalist.