Artists Vicente Telles and Brandon Maldonado have both been thinking a lot about identity, but it's not a new area of study for the santero and the oil painter.

Neither came to the topic as the country finally started asking itself about racist institutions, racist monuments and racist systems; for these two, both native New Mexicans, questions of where they come from and who their ancestors were have inundated their works for years.

Look to Maldonado's stunningly gorgeous Identidades show at Pop Gallery last year. At the time, he was processing the idea that nearly no one native to New Mexico has ancestors squarely in one camp.

The artists collaborated on the massive seven-panel “Guerra y Tierra” piece, for which the show is named.
The artists collaborated on the massive seven-panel “Guerra y Tierra” piece, for which the show is named. | Courtesy Vicente Telles and Brandon Maldonado

"We carry both the blood of the conqueror and the conquered," he told SFR at the time.

Both he and Telles continue to unpack that sentiment with a new collaborative piece set to display as part of a dual opening at Pop this week, and it cuts deeper than either has before. It's also the first time the longtime friends have both worked on a singular piece.

"I was always interested in what he was doing artistically, and he was interested in what I was doing," Telles tells SFR. "It was last year, finally, that we did something together."

Telles traces the beginning of the friendship back to his and Maldonado's first year showing at Contemporary Spanish Market in 2007. They were new to that world and wound up on the periphery of the sprawling downtown market. Happenstance and proximity kicked off years of discussion, travels and, eventually, the upcoming Guerra y Tierra show at Pop.

In the exhibit, each artist has numerous pieces that encapsulate their respective styles. Maldonado, for example, showcases recognizable neo-cubist illustrations in mediums like ink and charcoal—a choice, he says, that takes him back to his artistic roots. Telles' paintings, inspired by Van Gogh's "Sunflowers," dig into border politics, specifically the cartons of water activists leave for immigrants that wind up destroyed by Border Patrol, essentially killing people traversing the desert in search of better circumstances.

The jewel of the show, however, is the seven-panel altar piece, itself dubbed "Guerra y Tierra."

Crafted by Maldonado and Telles in equal measure, it's an awe-inspiring coming together of styles that might look like the work of a single artist if one didn't bother to do one's homework on Maldonado and Telles beforehand. Crammed with stories of the Aztecs, the Spanish, the Anglos, the church, the conquest and reconquest, as well as a number of lesser-known stories from each culture, the piece also represents a shocking amount of subtext. Colors, Telles says, signify particular meaning; touches like the eagle, the jaguar warrior, the drowning conquistador, boat building, the body of Christ and even a chalice in use by a Franciscan monk reveal more hidden meanings, but each serves one main purpose according to the artists.

"In comics, it used to be you always easily know who is good, who is the villain, but eventually you started to see a lot of ambiguity," Maldonado explains. "So you can kind of have empathy, sympathy for the villains, you can kind of say, maybe there is no hero here—maybe they all were very flawed and used their might…Just because you have superior weapons, doesn't mean there's going to be peace."

There is much to say about the corruptive influence of power and the dynamics of the territory now known as New Mexico in the 1600s, but for Telles and Maldonado, it was about a search for truth.

"Oñate wasn't even from Spain," Maldonado says. "He was from Zacatecas, Mexico, he had an Indigenous mother, and this myth that we're all conquistadores from Spain…the smoking gun is that there were less than 500 conquistadores who came, and the Aztecs were in the middle of their own type of genocide—I just think it's interesting that people only want to identify with one side of the story when there's so much more."

"Guerra y Tierra," however, isn't meant to criticize, it's meant as both history lesson and conversation starter, maybe even the beginning to any interested party's plan to look deeper into the history of New Mexico. Doing so has served Maldonado and Telles well.

"I feel like it's a beautiful thing to recognize that we're a creation of the land we come from," Telles says. "What I am is a child of New Mexico. Are we rehashing an antiquated idea? Will it get lost in the shuffle? We're just trying to tell our truth."

Vicente Telles and Brandon Maldonado: Tierra y Guerra:
All July. Free.
Pop Gallery,
125 Lincoln Ave., Ste. 11,