Driving to Albuquerque from Santa Fe in March is like propelling into the future by about a month or so. Santa Fe, while having begun its spring thaw, will continue the slow crawl out of winter for some time to come. In Albuquerque, however, chartreuse buds appear at the tips of branches, hyacinths sway in the balmy breeze, and flocks of students drape the patios of outdoor bars along Central. Spring representing a fresh start, I thought it befitting to cover Speak to Me: The 19th Annual Juried Exhibition now on view in the Raymond Johnson Gallery at the UNM Art Museum. The exhibition offers a selection of work from newly graduating students of UNM’s studio arts MFA program.
Speak to Me features painting, printmaking, photography, sculpture, and video. Curated by Julie Joyce, the exhibition centers on a loose theme of mystery, otherworldliness, and the subtly evocative. Some works underline this theme more than others. Ghost Detector by Conor Peterson, for example, drives home the point quite literally. The oblong mechanical device dangles lightly from the ceiling above an exhibition bench, and goes unnoticed unless you happen to crane your neck upward. Tiny lights pulsate on its delicate frame, as it responds to changing levels of energy in the room. Another work with a palpable air of spookiness is a desk-turned-cabinet of curiosities, by Eso Robinson, which dominates the far corner of the gallery. It displays a host of alien looking, inorganic specimens in various writhing shapes. On the opposite wall Natalie Smith’s pale tapestry paintings are also haunting, appearing drained of color in phantasmical monochromatic white.
Justin Nolan, Stage, 2012, Photograph; Courtesy of the artist.
Photographs by Justin Nolan hang in a striking triptych of vibrant primary color. Each photograph portrays an unpopulated interior space, the standout photograph being an image of a vacant strip club. Though the room is devoid of human life—the expected mix of dancers, bouncers, and leering onlookers—it feels anything but empty. The stage is surrounded by a chorus of zippy lounge chairs in sinuous, oil slick colors. There is a flashy, boisterous quality to these chairs. In the absence of people, the furnishings become their own kind of living, seedy entourage. They ripple with tacky, neon indecency. Though certainly less coarse than an image of scantily clad strippers, somehow they are just as sexy.
Another group of photographs on the far wall captivates my attention. The trio of images by Rachel Coxare taken from a larger series in which the artist photographed her grandmother who had been diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease. During the series, Cox’s grandmother began to pass on some of her worldly possessions to the artist, and in turn these items became incorporated into the photographs. In Mind Meld, a pair of young hands frames the face of an older woman with a vacant, far-off expression. The elderly woman appears stiff, almost waxen. In Two Turtles, we see a faceless image of the same figure, reclining in a wire chair with a small dog in her lap and flip-flops on her feet. She holds two upside-down turtle shells out to the viewer. Without any backstory to contextualize them, the shells are a bizarre offering. Moreover, they are presented by a ghostly figure that seems to exist—as suggested by the previous image—somewhere between the realm of the living and the dead. The effect is disquieting. We see a spirit held between the material and immaterial, holding out her possessions almost ironically, with a grip as light and loose as the one she keeps on reality.
Rachel Cox, Two Turtles, 2012, Archival inkjet print; Courtesy of the artist.
The images in Speak to Me are a dynamic lot to spend an afternoon with. The cool dark basement of the UNM Art Museum provides a perfect environment to take in each work with minimal distraction and appreciate the moments of eeriness, novelty, and surprise these works have to impart.
(Image on top: Installation image; Courtesy of Raymond Jonson Gallery at the UNM Art Museum.)