Not long after Christian Waguespack arrived at the New Mexico Museum of Art as the new curator of 20th-century art, he commissioned several enormous color swatches as part of a risky pitch. Waguespack’s first project, an exhibition titled Imagining New Mexico, represents a fresh take on the past 100 years of New Mexico art and culture. He dug through the museum’s vast collection, dusting off long-hidden paintings, photographs and sculptures. In order to show these historic works in a new light, he chose vivid shades of red, yellow, turquoise and blue for the walls of the show.

"I had large panels painted the colors I wanted, and I held them up against the walls," says Waguespack. "Then I made my saddest, most adorable puppy dog face."

The new palette passed muster with Director Mary Kershaw, and now the museum's Goodwin and Clark Galleries positively vibrate with color. Waguespack started his job this January, and he's wasted no time adding a jolt of modern-day energy to the museum's historic curatorial program. Imagining New Mexico debuted in early April, and it's only the beginning of Waguespack's mission to extract fresh narratives from well-worn local legends.

"For me, the idea was using the colors to conceptually bracket the different themes of the show," says Waguespack. He's hustling through the Goodwin Gallery, a space with radiating niches that periodically house curator Merry Scully's Alcove Shows, trying to stay ahead of a tour group led by a stern-eyed docent. "I can't compete with the docents or they'll beat me up," he explains with a grin.

The exhibition opens with a striking bronze bust of Georgia O'Keeffe by Una Hanbury, which guards bright yellow walls featuring interpretations of New Mexico within the tradition of the arts. Fritz Scholder, Laura Gilpin, Todd Webb and others offer diverse depictions of New Mexico's creative luminaries and their studios.

Across the room, bright red walls activate groups of artworks that explore different New Mexico traditions. One section contains fanciful portraits of cowboys; another features imagery of dance styles that were developed here; a third reveals religious iconography from the region. "Coming into this show, I didn't buy that there's one 'authentic' New Mexican identity," says Waguespack. "I think it's something that changes depending on the point of view you're looking at, so I wanted to bring together as many different points of view as I possibly could."

In the adjoining Clark Gallery, dazzling turquoise walls hold early- to mid-20th century New Mexico landscape paintings. "People have always responded to the land here," Waguespack tells SFR. "It's cheesy but it's true. It happened to me."

Waguespack is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and drove to Albuquerque on a whim to visit a friend in 2007. "Being from Louisiana, I had never seen a mountain, I had never seen snow," he says. He quit his job and moved to Albuquerque, where he got his BFA (in studio art and art history) and his MFA (in museum studies) at the University of New Mexico.

In his time at UNM, Waguespack interned and then worked at the UNM Art Museum. He curated an exhibition of Latin American photography there, which was a big breakthrough in his curatorial process. Anthropologists, Latin American scholars and a Guatemalan poet all contributed their voices to the wall text of the show. "It was particularly important for a show that was so much about place and identity that is not mine," Waguespack says. "I'm not Latin American, so I could contribute the art history part, but we had to go somewhere else for more depth."

After about seven years in New Mexico, Waguespack moved to Tucson for a little over a year to earn his doctorate in art history from the University of Arizona. His current job brought him back to the Land of Enchantment, and though he'd worked with historic New Mexico art in his time at UNM, he was a bit nervous.

"I've never lived in Santa Fe. Coming here brand-new, I'm expected to tell Santa Feans about their own history," he says. He's found that because the city has been an artistic hub for so long, locals are excited to discover new corners of this complex past. "It was an insane hive," he says. "If I had to draw a diagram, it would look like a dandelion." Waguespack has also worked on a retrospective for New Mexico modernist Cady Wells in his time at the museum, and is starting preparations for the museum's centennial exhibition this November.

Imagining New Mexico
Through Sept. 17. Museum admission $7-$12.
New Mexico Museum of Art,
107 W Palace Ave.,