Made in the Desert
From THE Magazine, July 2016. Review by Alicia Inez Guzman.
White noise appears to pulse from Melissa Cody’s textile, Navajo Transcendent. Surrounded by neon-colored stepped patterns, reminiscent of the traditional Navajo “Germantown dazzler,” blocks of black and white pixels vibrate with visual intensity. Cody, who pivots between weaving, hip hop, and graphic art, is among twelve artists who are redefining “craft” in form & concept’s inaugural exhibition, Made in the Desert (through August 22). Like Cody, who remixes long-established motifs and media with contemporary pigments and compositions, other artists in Made in the Desert nod to the past, present, and future in their offerings.
Jaque Fragua’s neon sign, created in the image of an eagle, announces the words “SOLD OUT” in bold, yellow letters. Using the familiar desert road sign to new ends, Fragua imparts a sense of dark humor in his illuminated beacons. His critiques against the exploitation of Native culture in the Southwest are similarly spelled out in his Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe (This is Not a Pipe), a riff on the Belgian artist René Magritte’s tongue-in-cheek painting of the same name. Yet, in Fragua’s version, the neon limns an image of a pipe broken in half. Here, the title gestures toward the capacity for words to mislead (an image of a pipe is not a real pipe), while the image of a smashed pipe intimates a broader political history of broken treaties between tribes and white colonists.
Other artists in Made in the Desert include Armand Lara, whose marionettes hang from the ceilings throughout the gallery, lacking the animating force of a puppeteer. In their stillness, his As Billy the Kid and As Frida are nonetheless uncanny, a closer look revealing their faces to be masks covering impish tricksters that take the appearance of Navajo clowns. It is the clowns, in these examples, who pull the strings. Arthur Lopez’ carvings of cholos and cholas, replete with big hair, tattoos, bandanas, and flames, retool the figure of the carved santo, renowned in northern New Mexico. In these brightly carved busts, Anima Chola and Anima Cholo, the artist exchanges patron saints for gangsters, vatos, and chingonas. Alternately, Janet Abrams’s aerial views of airport terminals rendered in clay decontextualize spaces of travel. Terminal layouts in In the Unlikely Event are so far removed from their original orientations that viewers might confuse them with organic matter.
As the director of form & concept, Frank Rose, observes, Made in the Desert evinces the profound variety of art and craft produced between New Mexico and Arizona. Yet neither geography nor the nebulous term “craft” are enough to produce a strong connective tissue between the artworks at hand, given the survey’s open-ended inclusivity. While Made in the Desert shows viewers a transcultural spectrum of art, the exhibition feels uneven at times. I suspect this has to do with how individual artists reflect on the nature of art and craft in the Southwest. For some, art and craft have only to do with aesthetics; for others, they are a means of cultural expression, and for others still, they are deeply bound to touristic commodification.
It would be unfair to say that all culture is commodified, but the Southwest is no stranger to façades. Indeed, the artists who broach this mixed history, in which an imagined Southwest meets a lived reality, offer a more critical message of what it means to create and view art and visual culture within the arid lands of New Mexico and Arizona. In some cases, this message issues almost too obviously, as in Cannupa Hanska Luger’s Installation in White, featuring a floating and whitewashed Indian surrounded by wares with price tags proclaiming, “Batteries not included.” Still, it is compelling as a viewer to consider how certain artists in Made in the Desert are redefining artistic production by pushing the already-indefinite boundaries of craft. It is perhaps more significant that certain works beg viewers to redefine how to look at art from multiple, complex perspectives. This is especially true in a place where multiple Southwests appear to coexist.