Marcus Chormicle’s uncle and cousin passed away on the same day a year apart. On the anniversary of their deaths, the photographer opened the community-centered CAV Gallery in Las Cruces.
LAS CRUCES, NM—In many instances, there’s a deeper and layered story behind the presented narrative. For Marcus Xavier Chormicle, a photographer, photojournalist, and founder of the Cristian Anthony Vallejo Memorial Gallery in Las Cruces, New Mexico, he’s excavating his truth in order to responsibly tell other people’s histories.
Based on his lived experience, there’s delight and tragedy to untangle for the artist, who says that his work zeroes in on “family, memory, and the intersection of class, race, and history in the Southwest.”
Chormicle, raised in Las Cruces, grew up in a tight-knit southern New Mexico community of family and friends. After graduating from Las Cruces High School in 2016, he moved to Phoenix to attend the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he had aspirations of globetrotting as a photojournalist.
“What I really wanted with leaving Las Cruces was to have an opportunity to travel and experience things,” he says. “Journalism felt like a really solid way to achieve that.”
However, Chormicle quickly realized that becoming a working journalist, with the inherent tedium and grind, might not be the best fit. He also grappled with some of the profession’s built-in shortcomings.
“The expectation was to swoop into somebody else’s story in their community and their life, extract all these details—in my case, images—and then you’d leave and write your story,” he explains. “It seems like the people that the story was about weren’t even being exposed to it or weren’t getting to benefit from the story. It’s for the benefit of the reader.”
“I wanted to take a step back and look internally,” adds Chormicle, a warm, friendly, and introspective artist and gallerist who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minors in digital marketing and studio art from ASU. “I was really drawn to the process of making art and feeling a little bit more in control of narrative.”
When Chormicle returned to Cruces during his summer breaks, he photographed his loved ones.
“It started as this idea of wanting to photograph my family as an extension of myself,” he says. “It was this rejection of the othering of people through photography, and more of, ‘how do I figure out how to talk about myself through photography before I even start trying to make a statement on other people?’”
“I felt like before I could embrace documentary photography from a journalist’s perspective, I needed to make work that looked inwards instead of just outwards,” he adds.
It took two years of documentation—and a series of catastrophic losses—to figure out where the series was headed.
According to exhibition materials for Chormicle’s Still Playing With Fire, which was on view at CAV Gallery from early August through early October 2022, his Uncle Punky was murdered. His body was discovered at a train yard near where he grew up.
“The detectives deemed his death a suicide even though we heard about his killing from others,” writes Chormicle. “No justice has been made.”
The series includes an image of Chormicle’s uncle plunging into a swimming pool three months before his death and an image of his final resting place. Other documentarian style images include a utilitarian shot of bullet holes imprinted into a post office wall following what Chormicle says was a police shooting near his house and candid photographs of his cousin Cristian.
Overall, Still Playing With Fire, which Chormicle hopes to turn into a book project, visually comments on “trauma, violence, forgiveness, and self-determination,” writes Chormicle in the exhibition statement. “The act of image-making serves to functionally highlight and perpetuate this violence by cementing the moments in time as artwork and as artifacts of an ongoing war of attrition… through photography, Marcus clings to fading moments of both joy and pain.”
On Christmas Day that year, Chormicle and his cousin Cristian visited their Uncle Punky’s grave.
One year to the day of his uncle’s passing, Cristian died of an overdose.
On September 3, 2021, the one-year anniversary of Cristian’s passing and the two-year anniversary of Uncle Punky’s death, Chormicle opened CAV Gallery.
“I had had an idea for a while before Cristian passed away of wanting to do an art space. I decided I wanted to dedicate it to him, primarily because a lot of my work has been about cycles and family,” says Chormicle, who was inspired to open a studio-gallery venue after seeing exhibitions at local gallery Art Obscura when he was in high school. “I wanted to do something that was honoring that and I wanted to honor him. I also wanted to give my work a little bit more meaning for myself.
“The hardest part about Cristian passing was that he wasn’t going to be a part of my milestones in life. I always imagined that one day he would be at my wedding and one day he would get to meet my kids and he’d be there for shows,” Chormicle continues. “He knew that I was photographing him and that he would be a part of a show one day and I’d have a big show and he would be there.
“A hard idea to wrap my head around was that he wasn’t going to be a part of my life in an active sense, and so the reason to name the gallery after him was to include him in those things.”
CAV Gallery, located in a sunny space at 126 South Main Street in downtown Las Cruces, also fills a need by presenting work by regional contemporary artists. The front room includes a retail area with artist-made beer-can candles and apparel featuring Chormicle’s logo designs, and the main exhibition area has hosted exhibitions by Bella Maria Varela, Matthew B. Garza, and an Indigenous photography show curated by Cece Meadows, Diego Medina, Saba, and Chormicle.
In 2023, the gallery plans to showcase works by Jose Lucero and Maryssa Rose Chavez in the exhibition Cura (January 6–February 18), Saúl Ramírez: Ambivalent Cities in March, Alfonso Fonseca: The Sun Ate My Heart Whole in May, and the group exhibition Tú Eres Tú in July.
Chormicle says that CAV Gallery takes a family- and community-centric approach to presenting artworks and events, whether it’s exhibiting local artists who might not otherwise get a chance to show their work or providing an unpretentious respite. It’s been a safe space from the very beginning—Chormicle says that Cristian’s mom attended the gallery’s grand opening, where family and friends shared happy memories of Cristian.
“I know that was hard for her because it was the one-year anniversary of her son’s passing. It seemed like it was better for her to be there among family and people coming to enjoy the memory of her son and all these other people that contributed their own family stories to the show rather than just sitting around in your house and feeling down,” says Chormicle.
“It’s not just a negative that there’s this person I loved, and now he’s gone,” Chormicle says about his cousin Cristian. “Now it’s a positive that he’s an active part of the coolest project I’ve worked on up to this point in my life.”