California artist Mary Weatherford’s traveling retrospective Canyon—Daisy—Eden spans three decades and multiple bodies of work in painting, silkscreen, and assemblage.
April 16–September 5, 2021
SITE Santa Fe
Canyon—Daisy—Eden is as straightforward as a painting exhibition can get. This might not be odd for a newcomer to SITE, but as someone who has visited many times over the course of several years, Canyon—Daisy—Eden felt out of place compared to SITE’s recent offerings. The “out of place’” feeling wasn’t necessarily bad as it manifested in a feeling of being in a place other than Santa Fe.
The Mary Weatherford exhibition is in fact a traveling exhibition organized by the Tang Teaching Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York, so it makes sense that it felt so different. Canyon—Daisy—Eden spans three decades and multiple bodies of work, yet the tight curation allowed for expansive wall space around nearly every painting, a novelty at SITE which typically hosts elaborately produced biennials and thematic group exhibitions. I welcomed the change of pace as I was able to contemplate each of the large-scale paintings and ponder the connections between the drastically contrasting bodies of work.
The exhibition is organized in a mostly chronological fashion so that the viewer begins with the artist’s earlier Pop-resonant works that rely heavily on silkscreen and assemblage and vary widely in a formal sense. Weatherford’s following body of work from the early 2000s focused heavily on plein air painting and observation, which seems connected only by a thin thread of art historical reference (this time, Impressionism) to her earlier work. This second body of work is tight formally and conceptually and looks and feels nearly nothing like her work from the ’90s. The viewer completes the exhibition loop with Weatherford’s well-known neon paintings from the 2010s. Although each body of work is shockingly different from the last, there is pleasure and perhaps frustration in identifying the artist’s through-line. My understanding of Sister Morphine (1993), a silkscreen painting that appears early in the exhibition that did not leave much of an impression on me, suddenly reignited in my memory when I saw the neon painting lovely day (2015). Both utilize vertical lines that strike through the middle of the canvas and affect a mood rather than compositional harmony.
Los Angeles-based Weatherford studied art history at Princeton before seeking an MFA at Bard, and many of her earlier works from the 1990s speak to her historical knowledge base. Two paintings titled Nagasaki, placed on the opening wall, offer several reads depending on the viewer’s knowledge of art history. Both Nagasaki paintings feature target motifs that echo Jasper John’s iconic pop series, yet their pastel hues allude to the artist’s Southern California origins. Curator Bill Arning elaborated that the title references the opera Madame Butterfly, a layer of information that is not critical for the appreciation of the painting. Her plein air paintings of a rock formation from Pismo Beach in California have natural associations with Monet’s haystacks. And finally, the neon paintings that won her Gagosian representation finally connect Weatherford with her California predecessors from the Light and Space movement. Weatherford’s consistent references to art history throughout her career are cues that the artworks and artists she looks to function like source material, and her works initiate a cross-generational dialogue.
I thoroughly enjoyed the simplistic approach to the exhibition and the freedom it allowed the viewer to interpret the work with minimal guidance. However, I was left with fundamental questions. Why did SITE choose to exhibit Mary Weatherford and why now? I don’t doubt the artist’s merit, but I wonder about the timing. Her art is rooted in personal experience and Anglo-European/American art history, which seems out of step for SITE, an institution that has been committed to presenting art about relevant issues. Further, Canyon—Daisy—Eden, marks the departure of the former SITE director Irene Hoffman, and is the first show to occupy the space in her absence. The traveling exhibition is a pleasure to view, though it does not feel representative of SITE, and maybe it doesn’t have to. The institution will welcome new director Louis Grachos this summer and one can only guess what new direction it may take.