The good news is the Alternative Spaces exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art is the boldest, least stodgy, most dynamic effort that has come out of the museum in recent memory.
And this is not a museum packed with stuffy curators and staff, idling the days away ensconced in thick corduroy and academic pretension. On the contrary, it has a dynamic team that manages to stretch its non-existent exhibition budget into consistently ambitious efforts. But this exhibition stands out. It has an eyebrow-raising roster of regional talent. It has a challenging premise: for the artists involved to exhibit in typically unused portions of the building, thereby revealing the building’s architecture and dialoguing with it, while evading the assumption that art is wall-mounted and well behaved.
However, there’s bad news too. While certain works are successful in their own right, they manifestly fail to foster such a dialogue or to unveil anything in particular about the building. Certainly there’s no cogent critique of the museum business as usual.
For many of the artists, it’s clear the history of building—or even the specific room or area that they worked in—is a paramount concern. These works are significantly informed by fine points of history, but such efforts fail to translate into a similar experience for the viewer.
An exception might be the work of Ligia Bouton, who plays on the huge popularity of Gustave Baumann and presents a piece that is more intimate, goofy and delightful than her involved installation in the current SITE Santa Fe exhibition. But it is still simply her work. There’s nothing “alternative” about its placement or its presence.
Joanne Lefrak tackles a hugely engrossing history in the St. Francis Auditorium, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her piece. In doing static work and video on the same plane—the surface of a giant, fabricated tomb—she adds too many ingredients when the right choice would have been distillation.
Jared Antonio-Justo Trujillo takes over an entire gallery, paints the walls a deep, resonating tone and carefully places precise peels of lettering (such as Sanskrit and Hebrew) to blast out from corners. He uses the architecture as a surface, but it would be a generous call to suggest that he is dialoguing with it. Trujillo has an ace aesthetic…for an interior designer. Yeah, I’m saying the installation would be more successful if done in a Los Angeles storefront and then used as a backdrop to sell, I don’t know, shoes or mp3 players.
Colin Zaug makes some pretty stars that light up on the front of the building. Enough said.
Perhaps if I had read more of the Department of Transportation-sized placards set out to explain the artwork to me, I’d have a better sense of what was genuinely intended by each piece. But, call me old-fashioned, if I have to read a sign in order to make the art compelling, the problem isn’t me—it’s the work. But that’s the sum of the bad news.
A lesser institution would be exhausted by the sheer number of hats the Museum of Art is forced to don: preserve and steward New Mexico’s cultural evolution since the industrial revolution, educate school children—and their parents and teachers—about art and art history; acquire and maintain a significant collection; organize a roster of continual exhibitions that delight everyone, offend no one and keep the attendance numbers climbing; identify emerging trends and make them translatable and understandable to the general public. And, oh yeah, would you please support the local scene, too?
In other words, the end result is that the museum has set a bold foot forward in terms of presenting more dynamic and challenging work. That the artists didn’t really live up to the challenge is less important. Perhaps Alternative Spaces curator Laura Addison just needs to push a little harder and demand a little more next time she colors outside the lines.