Unsettled Landscapes

Santafe.com | THE magazine - August 26, 2014

Too many words; not enough oomph.

 Kent Monkman, Bête Noir, acrylic on canvas with sculptural installation, 16’ x 16’ x 10’, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Sargent’s Daughters, NYC. Photo: Eric Swanson

Too many words; not enough oomph. That's the impression I was left with after walking away from SITE Santa Fe’s latest biennial effort. Before delving more deeply into the exhibition, "Unsettled Landscapes," I need to establish two major points. First, I sincerely appreciate that, under the directorship of Irene Hofmann, the institution has examined and subsequently shifted the biennial experience from its by-now-tiresome “parachute” track, wherein the usual suspects, members of the international art elite, swoop down upon some exoticized locale and do their artsy thing. After the big gala and a panel or two, they swoop back out again, leaving the local population largely unmoved by the fact that a significant art event just took place in their city. Second, there are works in this exhibition that serve as exceptions to my opening statement. Among them is Liz Cohen’s Trabant lowrider, a real crowd pleaser and a compelling work of art. But Santa Fe has seen it before, some years ago at the Center for Contemporary Arts. Jason Middlebrook’s "Your General Store" was a treasure trove of weird goodies you could trade for similarly weird goodies, an enjoyable way to browse, in a yard-sale trance, through a chunk of time. A pair of works dealing with New Mexico’s atomic past also caught my attention: one a poetic and oddly touching piece by Futurefarmers about Robert Oppenheimer’s desire for a nail on which to hang his hat; the other comprising three poignant photographs by Albuquerque artist Patrick Nagatani. And who could forget Miss Chief, Kent Monkman’s fabulous alter ego in his installation, "Bête Noir"? I’d go back simply to see that piece again.

One work mentioned favorably by nearly everyone I’ve spoken to about the biennial is Miler Lagos’s "The Great Tree," made of locally sourced newsprint. It’s beautiful, but there lies its onus. It’s an easy piece (easy to admire, that is) that doesn’t do much in the way of conveying meaning solely through its visual merits. I wanted to “get it,” at least on a subconscious level, without having to read an encyclopedic entry about it. Still, this work is better than most of the other entries offered in the show, in that it might, simply by virtue of its likeability, stimulate viewers to search out its message. But whatever happened to visual ascendancy?

At a certain point in any exhibition, most of us would like—to paraphrase Peter Schjeldahl in his latest The New Yorker review—to be able to “relax and enjoy” the art without having to either “be maddened” by inaccessible imagery or look up its every detail in a “brainy” catalogue. Which brings me back to my original point: Why do we have to pore over a lot of verbiage in order to understand A) what the biennial is about, and B) the relevancy of each of the artworks to the exhibition as a whole?

Here’s the bottom line, SITE: We want to be wowed! Not made to feel guilty or, depending upon our backgrounds and ethnicity, politically correct, and/or exonerated. Didactic strategies and documentarian methodologies get old quickly, especially when we dare to presume we’ve gone to a venue to look at, excuse me for being old-school, art.

What SITE did from its opening venture in 1995, up into the early 2000s, was gutsy, phenomenal, and rare in the art world. "Postmark: An Abstract Effect" (1999), curated by Louis Grachos; and "Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism," SITE’s Fourth International Biennial (2001- 2002), curated by Dave Hickey, were benchmarks in the organization’s history. Several other standouts come to mind, including 2003’s Uneasy Space, the first two biennials, and Andy Goldsworthy and Janine Antoni’s shows, not necessarily in that order. It’s been quite some time since this town has witnessed art shows that held together like those did.

Several of my friends have reported their disappointment in the current biennial. A dozen or so years after what some of these people are suggesting was the organization’s heyday, SITE has failed to impress, again. What has happened to New Mexico’s most important contemporary-art organization? Does the board think they can rest on SITE’s laurels? Do they realize that the better you are, the better you need to become?

One of the above-mentioned friends has called this failure to continue to conceive of and execute visually stunning art exhibitions the “Louis Grachos effect,” which goes like this: The person who can administer an organization like SITE and be a great curator (as Grachos, who is now executive director of The Contemporary Austin, did) is one-in-a-million. And Grachos (with a few very well-chosen guest curators) did it back in 1996 up through the early 2000s. Those were different times; even he probably couldn’t do it all today. The board needs to hire an outstanding executive director and let that person direct the damn place, meanwhile employing a consecutive slew of brilliant curators. When it comes to SITE Santa Fe, I’m not ready to settle. I hope its board members aren’t either.