Power in Numbers

By Leilani Marie Labong  •  June 5, 2017

The legacy of artistic collaboration is alive and well in Santa Fe, after a century of community-based art colonies in New Mexico’s arts hub.

House of Eternal Return is an immersive and high-tech new art installation at Meow Wolf, a renegade Santa Fe art collective. More than 100 local painters, architects, video producers, sculptors and writers worked together to create the 20,000-square-foot show, which chronicles an imaginary family that has mysteriously abandoned its colorful Victorian mansion. In this rich multidimensional experience, viewers try to uncover the fate of the missing family as they explore warped rooms. An alien invasion, perhaps? Or maybe a wrinkle in the space-time continuum? The jumbo-sized installation is unique and daring—as is nearly everything about Meow Wolf, which has been compared to an amusement park and a real-life video game and whose benefactors include Santa Fe resident and Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. But its ambitious collaborative efforts are not unusual in Santa Fe, which has a century-old history of artists working together.

Flash back to the early 1920s, when a quintet of twentysomething-year-old modernist artists, mostly East Coasters, descended upon New Mexico and dubbed themselves Los Cinco Pintores. Coming at first for the drier climes—a preventative measure against then-rampant tuberculosis—they stayed for the region’s untapped inspiration, namely its sharp, clear light and landscape of sandstone canyons and sagebrush mesas. One member of the group, watercolorist Jozef Bakós, particularly loved the high-desert glow. “[The] eye-dazzling light of different color tones every new second was a delight to my artist’s soul”—as made plain in the strong, earthy hues and cubist elements of his canvases.  

“Their coming together was a strategic move, a sort of strength-in-numbers approach,” says Elaine Ritchel, owner of Santa Fe Art Tours, of Los Cinco Pintores. Richtel leads intimate groups on easygoing art jaunts around the city, exploring Canyon Road’s string of  80-plus galleries as well as the New Mexico Museum of Art on Santa Fe’s historic plaza. “This allowed them to shift from the fringes of the art community into the limelight.”  

Almost 100 years later, community is still the foundation of Santa Fe’s art scene, and not just at Meow Wolf. “The creation of art, primarily done in isolation, needs a kindred audience to reach its fullest potential,” says local painter Max-Carlos Martinez. “And art makers need to know they are not alone in their pursuits.” Martinez, a New Mexico native whose vibrant canvases feature psychedelic swirls and color-blocking emblazoned onto American West iconography, lives at El Zaguan, a Canyon Road arts residency that dates back to 1928. There, in the spirit of his forebears—including arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, who famously hosted the likes of Georgia O’Keefe, D.H. Lawrence and Martha Graham at her 12-acre Taos property in the 1920s and 30s—Martinez puts on rollicking salons for local artists.

Santa Fe has also birthed a new generation of bootstrapping artist colonies. Sixteen local artists and a handful of patrons opened Vivo Contemporary gallery last November on Canyon Road, where they exhibit and sell their work—paintings, prints, collages, kilned glass, book arts, sculpture—together, eschewing solo or small group exhibits. Another example is Strangers Collective. Now comprised of more than 30 artists, it began in 2014 as a small group of friends organizing pop-up exhibitions for local, under-the-radar artists in members’ living rooms. In 2015 they hosted a show called No Land in a gallery on the brink of closure. “It was a little bizarre to exhibit in a ‘dying’ gallery,” says Strangers co-founder Jordan Eddy. “It became something of a political statement about the scarcity of wall space for young artists in such a strong creative community.”

Unwavering in its belief that even creatives on the fringe deserve a platform for their work, Strangers recently opened its own gallery space. Appropriately called No Land, it’s just steps from the New Mexico Museum of Art, where Los Cinco Pintores mounted their first major group exhibition nearly a century ago, and where many of their eye-popping paintings still hang today.

Photos by @officialmadisonmarkham, @caitlinephoto, @katerussellphoto and Vivo Contemporary Gallery.

Meow Wolf: 1352 Rufina Circle; 505-395-6369

Santa Fe Art Tours: 505-985-5298

El Zaguan: 545 Canyon Road; 505-983-2567

Vivo Contemporary Gallery: 725 Canyon Road; 505-982-1320

Strangers Collective: 54 1/2 E San Francisco Street #7

New Mexico Museum of Art: 107 W. Palace Avenue; 505-476-5072


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Written By: Leilani Marie Labong


Locations: Santa Fe

See more: Art & Culture

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