When the New Mexico Museum of Art opened to the public as the Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico on Nov. 24, 1917, its mission was to provide the contemporary artists of the day with a venue for showing their work. Regional artists could put their names on a list and their work would be exhibited in one of several ground-floor niche galleries, or alcoves. The open-door policy persisted for decades until curated shows took over completely in the 1950s. Alcoves 20/20, which opens on Friday, Aug. 9, pays homage to the museum’s original vision by showcasing the work of 30 New Mexico-based artists. (The artists’ work appears in six rotations featuring five artists at a time, spanning a year in total.)
“I really think that this continues the museum’s engagement with living artists,” said Merry Scully, the museum’s head of curatorial affairs and curator of contemporary art. “People forget that we were founded as a contemporary museum.”
Alcoves 20/20 isn’t the first time the museum has revived its alcove shows. They were mounted sporadically in the decades following the 1950s. But a revival in 2012 was the first in 20 years. The idea was brought back again in 2016 as a lead-up to the museum’s 2017 centennial. In its 21st-century revivals, the museum has showcased the work of 80 regional artists. “For each of the artists, it’s a small one-person show that’s part of a group show, that’s part of a really long group show,” Scully said.
The first rotation of Alcoves 20/20, which runs through Oct. 13, includes work by sculptor Stuart Arends, painters Mokha Laget and Diane Marsh, sculptor/painter Dan Namingha, and mixed-media artist Emi Ozawa.
Scully’s purview is broad. There is no set theme for the exhibition, but there are correspondences between the work of all five artists this year in their use of a strong, graphic sense of color and the Minimalist quality to their work. Throughout the rotations, Scully includes new and recent work by artists at various stages in their careers. Approximately five works by each artist are included.
“It needs to be good work, not just the kind of work I’m partial to,” she said. “I want to make sure that there’s a variety of media, and I like to be able to show artists who aren’t just from the immediate vicinity. Because of the rapid turnaround, a lot of times I look for artists that have a body of work in progress or already done. We can consider some of them emerging, but they still have to have a substantial body of work and a serious practice.”
In advance of the exhibition, Scully travels to the artists’ studios and visits gallery exhibits with an eye not just for who to include in alcove shows but for other exhibits, as well. Scully hasn’t completed the schedule for the remaining Alcoves shows. “I have the first two rotations set,” she said. “I have a group of artists outside of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and I’m going to hit the road to go visit them so that I can get the rest of the shows curated.”
The second rotation will include work by sculptor and installation artist Jen Pack, painter Daniel McCoy Jr., and multimedia artists Marietta Patricia Leis, Heather McGill, and Sarah Stolar. It opens on Oct. 19.
Cardboard, wood, and repurposed steel often form the bases for the art of Willard, New Mexico-based Stuart Arends, who layers the materials with graphite, wax, and paint for his sculptures. He’s known for his compact, box-like constructions. But for Alcoves 20/20, Arends, 69, is showing recent work in which translucent rectangular slab sculptures are set into the beds of antique toy trucks. These curious works are a conflation of his best-known work — with its emphasis on line, form, and simple geometry with soft, smooth surface treatment — and the idea of the found object as a medium for art. Like the everyday objects in Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” the approximately 20-by-6-inch toy trucks are presented with little artistic intervention. The style of the metal trucks reflects the curvilinear aesthetics of automobiles from the 1930s and ’40s. But there’s something real and honest in what they represent — or appear to represent. Perhaps they reflect Arends’ own experience as an artist, immersed in the culture of rural New Mexico with its centuries-old artistic traditions. The small contemporary sculptures seem more complementary than at odds with the antiques that hold them — plain and rustic metal vehicles transporting simple, Minimalist works of art.
Shaped canvases have a history dating back to the 1930s, with the work of artist Abraham Joel Tobias. Shaped canvases, in which the contours of a typical rectangular canvas are altered, sometimes considerably, are a direct challenge to traditional painting and aim to bridge a gap between painting and sculpture. Few artists are as adept in exploring the form as Mokha Laget, who was born in Algeria and now resides in Santa Fe. She is a painter of color field abstractions. Using geometry, Laget juxtaposes solid colors that intersect and jump from the surface of a composition and into the space around it. Where the planes of color overlap, the tones change and take on the appearance of opaque glass. Laget, who’s in her 60s, is a former studio assistant to prominent Washington Color School painter Gene Davis. She shows several of her recent shaped canvases, including Borderline #2 from 2018, parts of which seem to recede from the viewer while other parts jump out — giving it a quality akin to a three-dimensional object, though the entire composition exists on a two-dimensional plane.
Rendered with almost hyper-real detail, the figurative paintings of artist Diane Marsh, 65, are dreamlike works that have a narrative quality. But they are narratives in which only the rudiments, or the outlines, of stories are revealed. The paintings here, such as Circle of Compassion (2017) and A Child’s Prayer (2006), invite the viewer to fill in the blanks. In Circle of Compassion, the tear-streamed face of a young girl against a plain background, eyes downcast, is encircled by a series of ovals, each one containing a different object, person, or animal: a rose, a butterfly, a crane, several small portraits of people with their eyes closed. Are these figures within her circle of experience that she’s come to love and care about? Or are they representative of a heart that embraces the circle of all life? Something about the painting — the girl’s tears, the closed eyes in the tiny portraits of people, the fact that some of the animals are endangered or threatened with extinction — gives it an overall tone of melancholy. Marsh, who lives in southeastern New Mexico, paints with a sense of reverence as well as concern for life. Allusions to childhood and familial relationships abound. Marsh’s work is accessible because, in part, it captures moments of tender introspection and life experiences to which everyone can relate.
In 2016, the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture honored Santa Fe-based Hopi-Tewa artist Dan Namingha with the designation of Living Treasure. Namingha, who’s 69, is a sculptor and painter. He is the great-great-grandson of famed Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo, and the father of artists Arlo Namingha and Michael Namingha. His paintings range from abstract configurations of line and form to more representational subject matter. They often bear abstracted elements derived from Hopi-Tewa iconography. The museum is showing selections from Namingha’s Points Connecting series of 12-by-12-inch works on paper, from 2018. Each abstract composition is an interplay of curvilinear and angular, hard-edged forms that range from black on white to a minimal or often monochromatic use of color. These simple compositions are like studies of spatial and color relationships. Namingha will also be unveiling a new large-scale, 5-by-10-foot painting made specifically for the exhibition.
Tokyo-born artist Emi Ozawa, who now resides in Albuquerque, creates wall sculptures from painted wood, kinetic sculptures, and sculptural works in paper. The works of the 57-year-old artist — including wood sculptures and creations made from board-mounted paper — have a Minimalist aesthetic. She combines the clean lines and hard edges of geometry with a vibrant use of color. The works have a bold visual impact and, in the nature of optical illusions, can fool the eye. Ozawa, who has a master’s degree in furniture design from the Rhode Island School of Design, brings a strong design element to her work. And as the viewer moves, her sculptural pieces can change their appearance. For instance, Sounds Like a Chord (2016), an acrylic and poplar wall sculpture on view in Alcoves 20/20, has a gridlike structure of six horizontal bands, each composed of narrow vertical stripes in various colors. Viewed straight on, it has a staccato, musical rhythm, and every vertical stripe can be seen. But when viewed from a slight angle, the stripes disappear and take on the appearance of solid planes of color. Also showcased is a selection of her wall sculptures and works on paper.