Over dinner, the entirety of our conversation revolved around the history and geography of New Mexico. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of history and lineage.
At one point I asked him, “How do you know all of this?”
I don’t think he knew what I meant.
For decades, West has painted Santa Fe and its people with a mixture of sentimentality and earnestness, even while injecting his pictures with dramatic and frightening metaphors of death and destruction. Last weekend, a 20-year retrospective of his work opened at Linda Durham Contemporary Art to coincide with his receipt of the Santa Fe Rotary Foundation’s Distinguished Artist of the Year Award. More works are on view at the Wells Fargo Bank on Washington Avenue. They are a small series West donated to the bank that tacks on an extra 15 years of retro.
As one might expect of a survey, the works run the gamut, from allegorical anti-war images to iconic adobes that punctuate downtown sight lines. West’s cartoonish technique is surprisingly consistent throughout, but chronology points to his evolving style.
At Linda Durham, the show consists mostly of two differing approaches. The earlier works are large, with overt political themes. Stylistically they are portraits, with a central figure that dominates the composition. They depict soldiers and mushroom clouds and have titles such as “Exodus from Kosovo.” One can’t help consider New Mexico’s history of violence and nuclear-bomb capabilities.
In West’s more recent works, the scale has decreased dramatically and, depending on your feelings about tourism, so has the shock value. For the most part, these works feature recognizable landmarks near the Plaza. The images retain a sense of melancholy, as when West wryly acknowledges the incongruous placement of a giant crane as it works to construct the authentic-looking New Mexico Museum of Art.
In “Miss O’Keeffe Pays a Visit to the Plaza Bar in the Waning Days of that Institution,” a buoyant crowd imbibes while one of New Mexico’s most famous residents appears on the television behind the bar. As the title implies, this was a place West appreciated but couldn’t save.
By comparison, the older works at Wells Fargo are rougher, and West is much more straightforward in his execution. They lack the charge and slyness of the works at Linda Durham. Still, coupled with the portraits, they show a distinct progression to the current style—the culmination of West’s tireless eye for detail and dark sense of irony.
What these paintings all have in common is West’s dogged chronicling of local events, both real and imagined. A lot of people paint Santa Fe, but West is the rare breed that illustrates a scene without making it scenic. A master of perspective, his landscapes wind and sprawl toward the horizon, and nothing receives more attention than anything else.
Many times, the perspective looks down upon the subjects. Rather than fill the composition with dazzling skies and colorful landscapes, West focuses on the people. After all, it is the people who live the stories. The detail of the crowded Plaza during a festival is especially striking. Looking from person to person, I can see each smile, each tooth is considered.
During our meal, West asked me about my family. He wanted to know when they’d immigrated, what they had done for a living. When I admitted I wasn’t sure, he seemed genuinely disappointed—which made me feel sort of ashamed. I realized, for the first time, I’d wasted an opportunity to learn something about my own history.