Exhibition Review: Unsettled Landscapes

Unsettled Landscapes
SITE Santa Fe
Through Jan. 11, 2015

Updated Sept. 2, 2014 2:15 p.m. ET
original article: Wall Street Journal

Santa Fe, N.M.


At the press preview for SITE Santa Fe’s biennial this summer, behind a heavy velvet curtain in an alcove off the main galleries, a card game was in progress. Artist Pablo Helguera dealt oversized playing cards depicting characters from New Mexico’s rough-and-tumble prestatehood period—a madam named Doña Tules, the three-term governor Manuel Armijo and famed bandit Pancho Villa. “You play the game and get enmeshed in New Mexico’s history, when the area was still a part of Mexico,” Mr. Helguera later told me. In vitrines at the entryway to the makeshift casino, he has installed documents and artifacts from the 1840s (a clock, books on military history, a gunpowder flask, legal records) discovered during his research into this territory’s bloody and embattled past.

By no means the cheekiest contributor to the show, Mr. Helguera is one of the 45 artists and artists’ collectives whose works were assembled by a team of four curators for the biennial’s 2014 edition. When it was founded nearly 20 years ago, SITElines, as it’s known, was one of a handful of biennials around the world. Since then, their number has grown. Some 150 similar art extravaganzas are held every year, and as curator Janet Dees and director Irene Hofmann note in their catalog essay, “there is a growing dissatisfaction with the uniformity of the presentations, the limited pool of curators . . . , and the remarkably narrow roster of selected artists.” SITElines’s organizers set out a few years ago to remedy that situation, and the upshot is a show focused on contemporary art of the Americas on its north-south axis, from Nunavut to Tierra del Fuego, taking as its title “Unsettled Landscapes.” If its three themes—”landscape, territory, and trade”—sound like the agenda for a junior-high social studies class, the exhibition is anything but dull. The contributions from the largely unknown artists cover the gamut of art making today, from performance to installation to traditional mediums like painting and sculpture, and there is plenty here to entertain, baffle, annoy, and even provoke those hallowed aesthetic responses of awe and visual pleasure. You’ll need to study the wall text and possibly the catalog to steer you through this thicket, but bear in mind that the vast terrain documented here wasn’t discovered without savvy guides.

Not surprisingly, much of the art has a political bent, but the messages are seldom heavy-handed. Off the bat, in the first gallery, is Andrea Bowers’s “Memorial to Arcadia Woodlands Clear-Cut (Green, Violet, Brown),” a huge hanging chandelier composed in part of sticks and branches collected when she and others staged an unsuccessful protest of the bulldozing of a grove on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Trees and what becomes of them were also much on the minds of Miler Lagos and Johanna Calle, both natives of Colombia. Mr. Lagos’s floor-to-ceiling sculpture of a massive Ceiba tree, a fixture in the mythology of an ancient rain-forest tribe, is composed of thousands of sheets of recycled newspaper (ask a guard to show you how this was done). Ms. Calle’s “Perimeters” are delicate multipart “drawings,” also of Ceiba trees, assembled from illegible typewritten texts that tell of the fates of those affected by so-called agrarian reform laws.

As the locus for the first tests of the atomic bomb, New Mexico takes some light-hearted heat from the artists’ collective known as the Futurefarmers, who made three nails cast from a meteorite, 1943 steel pennies, and Tritinite (the glassy residue left in the desert after the bomb went off). All are in response to a memo, framed and displayed here, requesting that a nail be driven into the office wall of Robert Oppenheimer, lead physicist of the Manhattan Project, so that he might have a place to hang his hat. In the same gallery, in three eerily gorgeous photos, Patrick Nagatani casts a baleful eye on the post-nuclear landscape of the Southwest. Other artists exploring the terrain of the Americas make videos, photos and drawings, finding a strange beauty in a rain forest Henry Ford hoped to turn into a rubber-making bonanza, the modest Inuit homes in Canada’s bleak Arctic, and the frozen white landscape of the Alert Signals Intelligence Station, the northernmost settlement on Earth. More traditional landscape approaches can be found in Yishai Jusidman’s seductive globes, which stretch paintings by Claude Monet and John Constable around glossy spheres; Ohotaq Mikkigak’s large-scale drawings in colored pencil; and Irene Kopelman’s unabashedly lyrical paintings of the territory encountered on a month-long sailing journey.

For pure mechanized fun, check out Liz Cohen’s hybrid of a German Trabant and a Chevrolet El Camino, eight years in the making and transported to the floor of the last gallery. Antonio Vega Macotela’s enchanting little metal sculpture looks like a postmodern music box but its horse-drawn mill shape alludes to the human toil required to make gold coins in the former Spanish colonies. And just outside SITE Santa Fe’s main building, at the edge of a parking lot, is Jason Middlebrook’s “Your General Store,” an emporium inside a giant shipping container where you can barter for birdhouses, tools, crockery, and even slapdash abstract paintings. Just like in the good old days.

There are other offsite projects, online and in a local museum, but the offerings here, through Jan. 11 of next year, will keep even the most jaded biennial aficionado engaged. Just be prepared to spend several hours or, better yet, make more than one visit.

—Ms. Landi writes on culture and the arts.