There is a fascination with yards in New Mexico. Standard, square swaths of green grass are virtually out of the question for everyone except the most devout turf tenders in our parched environment. As an East Coast transplant I remember all too well the angst that can be associated with lawns. Let it go wild, and overgrown and you might as well announce aloud to the entire neighborhood that you are a sex-addicted psychopath. In New Mexico, however, in the absence of greenery and the psychoanalysis that can accompany it, lawn-wise it’s pretty much anything goes. A quick jaunt down my otherwise unextraordinary street in South Santa Fe reveals the following front yard environment.
Kate Skelly's Neighbor's Lawn; photo by the author.
A maze of tiny bridges, dams, and snaking waterways leads the eye to a ceramic turtle and a doe entwined in an impersonal embrace. They look coolly past each other, staring at nothing in particular. In the background, atop an altar of brick and adobe sits a cast-iron fire pit. It is perched regally, at the focal point of the composition. In the foreground a frog-shaped planter with a simpering smile and large dewy eyes breaks the fourth wall, looking out at the viewer with lazy smugness, daring you to find meaning in the architectural puzzle of its environs.
Altared Spaces, an exhibition now on view at the New Mexico History Museum, takes the viewer on a photographic tour of shrines in New Mexico. Much like the quirkily assembled lawns in my neighborhood, the shrines in Altared Spaces are an idiosyncratic lot. They appear in backyards, workshops, bedrooms, and on cliff sides. Some images feature recognizable religious iconography, figures of the Virgin Mary, or candles printed with images of Saints. Other spaces in the exhibition are much more eccentric and personal. For example, a photograph of a crudely assembled shrine in a parking lot in Espanola with tattered plastic folding chairs in place of pews.
The images in Altared Spaces were captured by three photographers, Siegfried Halus, Jack Parsons, and Donald Woodman. Each artist takes a slightly differing view on shrines. Halus is more sentimental, while Woodman has a more plastic definition of the term sacred. Central to the exhibition’s core, however, is the exploration of shrines in the context of the New Mexican landscape. Throughout many of the images in the exhibition, shrines offer a visual respite from the sheer endlessness of the landscape, the enduring stretches of blue sky and tawny earth, rippling out into the horizon. These enclosed spaces, decorated with foil, flowers, candles, and in one case a television, provide the viewer an opportunity to stop and catch their breath as they are faced with an abyss.
Donald Woodman, "God Is Just a Prayer Away, Chimayó, NM, 2011; Courtesy of the artist and New Mexico Museum of Art.
To put it simply, there is a lot of space in the imagery of Altared Spaces. Though the exhibition text encourages the viewer to interpret that space in spiritual terms, touting New Mexico as the inspiration for a colorful collection of sacred places and hallowed grounds, I see the space presented here more in terms of potential. In the open Southwestern landscape there is potential for both the sacred and the profane in equal measure. Either way you lean, there is ample room to build, be it a shrine made out of found objects, a field full of strategically placed lightning rods, or a front yard tableau in homage to the gentle beauty of the garden gnome.
(Image on top: Siegfried Halus, Shrine to the Virgin, Rancho de Santa María de la Paz, Peña Blanca, María Margarita Maranon, 1997; Courtesy of the artist and New Mexico Museum of Art.)