Harwood’s Women Artists: Antidote to Barbarism

By: Bill Whaley
16 February, 2018

Downstairs

On Thursday evening last week I attended a film at the Harwood and the staff mentioned the “Work By Women” show. In the semi-darkness I meandered, looking at the art, comforted by the familiar figures both past and present. Late the next afternoon on Feb. 9, while walking my dogs at the Gorge, a friend texted and reminded me to beat it back to the crowded opening. With the lights on the work grew even more refined, the style and representative technique from different periods more interesting.

The show focuses on both the historically well known and the lesser known, while reminding one of the feminine nature of the community, a community that tacitly acknowledges the cross-cultural multiversity of race and gender. Specifically, I think of the women who adapted to the life and work of community, the mothers who managed to support husbands and raise children but remain engaged in their art.

Though their more famous male partners garnered the publicity and benefited from spousal sacrifice or I was struck, for instance by Helen Blumenshein’s morphic piece depicting a New York skyline, looking up from the sidewalk. Blumy’s wife Mary sacrificed the notices she earned in Paris when she settled back and supported her husband’s career as did his daughter, Helen, his memory.

The spectacular center of the show in the Ribak-Mandelman gallery focuses on larger Abstract Work and reminds one of the artistic risk and determination, regardless of recognition by the art world. In some of the smaller more intense work one sees the threads connecting Martin, Mandelman to contemporaries. Meanwhile, upstairs similar work int he Scott Gallery and Hispanic Gallery maintained the theme of contemporary women artists.

Taos Homecoming Events

For me the show represented another one of those “homecoming events,” where you see old friends and remember those names (RIP) I knew as people when I first arrived in Taos. Some of their grandchildren have been my students at UNM.

My exposure to art in the community, like the community in general, was always stimulated by meeting the artist first in person. Friendship stimulated interest in the work. The person, the work, and the community provide the context. I am very much a product of my parochial surroundings, the cantinas, the openings, and the conversations among friends.

Conversations about life and work amplify understanding and appreciation regardless of formal education. I have spent years studying the literature of philosophy but the written and oral language fail, as Wittgenstein makes clear in his Philosophical Investigations, to account for the language of imagery. Imagery, a sensuous appeal to body and mind, requiring a visceral response, remains more eloquently understood in silence, per Wittgenstein.

But the social instinct, the reasons why we form communities, based on the social contract, requires discourse as a spiritual exercise, communication about the arts of humanism, the historical record of becoming conscious human beings in a community here or anywhere where land, people, and society interact reflexively in the fulfillment of living. As Emerson noted creative “expression” completes the human being.

The Downstairs show, curated by Janet Webb and Judy Kendall reflects three months of research and consideration of the Harwood archives. Janet mentioned that the show does not reflect a complete survey of Taos women artists since the archives by definition are limited. Their success can be seen in the selection of serious working artists. Historically, I particularly liked Dorothy Brett’s piece, “Outward Bombers.”

In contrast to her imaginative interpretations of Native American ceremonies, Brett displays a certain worldly consciousness as she depicts the war machines navigating the skies above the clouds, the smoke below, lightened by a flurry of small blue planes, more birdlike in their light-hearted way than technological. I was reminded me of Brett’s eyes and sense of humor, who Saki introduced me to Brett at La Dona Luz, where she used to hold court at the table in the entrance. Brett, in contrast to Frieda, Mabel, and Lawrence always seemed at home in Taos and in in her own skin.

Upstairs

Upstairs the contemporary pop culture paintings of Erin Currier translate the artists continuing passion to make intelligible the representative faces and bodies of third world resistance and revolutionary figures as the art world focuses attention on political events not unlike Brett’s bombers. Similarly Jolen Yazzie’s fierce female warriors trope on Marvel Comics, reminiscent of the more humanized portrayal of the super hero in the movie, “Wonder Woman.” Woman as warrior-goddess continues as a theme that began in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, the Greek Tragedies, or, closer to home, the figures from the matrilineal traditions of the Dine.

Harwood Director Richard Tobin apparently scheduled the two above as the headliners for an exhibition, and then turned to Janet and Judith to curate the show below. The show focuses not only on the past and present but also on the contrast between “the art world” or commercial recognition and the “working artist,” who works, regardless of recognition. The more lasting criteria, achievement, develops in the after life despite death, a reminder of the only male represented on the floor in the permanent display of Ken Price’s “Death Shrine.”

Along with more Taos Women, including Agnes Martin’s sublime “Tundra” in a side gallery upstairs, I enjoyed six smaller works downstairs depicting the “grid,” which seemed somehow more accessible due to their human scale. I’ve always found myself a bit flummoxed by her art though less so after watching Jina and Kathleen’s film, “Before the Grid,” which features Marsha Oliver’s wonderful paean to Agnes. Marsha and I greeted each other with a hug and a laugh at the show in front of her abstract piece of dark lavender and black lines and shapes so reminiscent of how I imagine Marsha’s sensuous mind.

The Antidote to Barbarism

From late Middle English and Old French comes the term barbarisme, via Latin from Greek barbarismos or barbarizein ‘speak like a foreigner.’ The Greeks used the term to think of foreigners as “barbarous.” or ‘foreign.’ Today, the absence of culture and civilization or references to “the collapse of civilization” means a return to barbarism, something increasingly broadcast on the nightly news.

Even as the Olympics signals an attempt by the Koreans to bridge the gap between north and south and the Americans are represented by multicultural athletes, elected representatives in Washington D.C. are riven by debates over redistributing shares in the wealth upwards, while using “immigrants” as focal point for division in contrast to the idealism of the Declaration of Independence embodied by the Statue of Liberty. More immediately, while the nightly news focuses on “palace intrigue,” the great powers and their proxies in Syria have reached the tipping point of global war. The scourge of serial killing, supported by politicians, indebted to the NRA, reminds one of the bloody history in Taos but also the temporary peace we’ve made in community, per the culture of consensual humanism.

Indeed, the Harwood’s collection of “Work by Women” is a protest against the dehumanization of the commercial and political culture. Currier’s work directly addresses the issue while Yazzie’s reminds us of an alternative history of the Southwest and the rarely acknowledged role of women as warriors. More directly the downstairs show represents how women working in an isolated region provide society with the means for seeing friendship, work, artistic expression as a moment of grace in the midst of what may be the barbaric conclusion of the west, not unlike those dazzling snowboarders, young men and women who defy gravity twirling above the half-pipes as if one of Brett’s blue birds sent aloft to remind the “Bombers” that death is the end but not the purpose of life.

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