Santa Fe Community College Visual Arts Gallery
Something I Need You To Know debuted on Wednesday, November 9, 2016, the day after the United States presidential election. During the opening reception, visitors staggered through the hallways of Santa Fe Community College in search of the Visual Arts Gallery. Curator Niomi Fawn, of CurateSantaFe, had installed a giant mirror on the wall just outside the space, with the show’s title running across it in black vinyl. This exhibition gestated in the long months of a vicious political campaign, when tweets and three-word chants ruled the discourse. Now was the time for a different type of storytelling—and an unsparing new approach to self-examination.
The Visual Arts Gallery is a round space, with a halo of massive lights that gives it the feel of a boxing ring. At the front of Something I Need You to Know (through February 15), Fawn conjures a trio of terrifying opponents. At left, there’s an excerpt from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 treatise Emile, or On Education. “The life of a good woman is a perpetual struggle against the self,” reads the giant wall text. “It is only fair that woman should bear her share of the ills she has brought upon man.”
At the opening reception, the beast’s phallic shape and gaping jaws evoked a whole administration of bogeymen.
At right, Carmen Selam (Yakama/Comanche) presents the pop art–inflected Coachella Queen. The acrylic painting shows a blond woman in her underwear, flanked by paper doll costumes of Disney characters Pocahontas and Tiger Lily. In the center of the space, there’s an acrylic painting of a great white shark rising from a sea of green sludge. The work, titled My Pet Fish, is Cyrus McCray’s meditation on addiction. At the opening reception, the beast’s phallic shape and gaping jaws evoked a whole administration of bogeymen.
These monstrous words and images are only the preface to an exhibition that has the ambitions of a biennial. The featured artists tell their tales with an unblinking ferocity, and an expectation that the audience will absorb their truths with radical empathy. Throughout the show, political statements give way to personal narratives that are razor sharp in their specificity. Twenty-four hours after Donald Trump’s victory, here was intersectional feminism’s first response.
Fawn built two booths in the gallery to house new media works. Lucy Madeline’s video Widening the Sphere resides in a sanctuary of white muslin. The piece features local women telling candid stories about sexual health. Across the space, Razelle Benally (Oglala Lakota/Diné) fills her alcove with a triple projection titled Transformations. Five subjects—all people of color and artists—flash in and out of view, telling stories about pregnancy, parenting, sexual identity, transgender identity, racism, and drug addiction. While each subject speaks in turn, Benally syncs up footage of the other artists listening and reacting.
Madeline and Benally’s works are remarkably intimate, a tribute to the trust that they built with their subjects—and that has been bestowed, in turn, on their audience. Back in the main space, fearless vulnerability also abounds. Edie Tsong gathered photographs spanning more than 40 years of her life, and traced her own outline in each of them. A series of twenty-four drawings captures the black silhouettes, removed from their contexts but bearing a surprising amount of autobiographical information. These inkblots chronicle moments of companionship and solitude, of confidence and awkwardness.
Jared Weiss shows three acrylic paintings that visually tie the space together, forming a microcosm of his own memory. One large canvas depicts a hazy figure on horseback under a sky of violent red, an image that reappears across the gallery in the background of a self-portrait. Israel Francisco Haros López exhibits ceramics for the first time. His jet-black sculptures of animals, faces and abstract forms adorn an altar made from New Mexico soil. Four of López’s Tyvek banners from his Codex series hang on the wall above it. The display is simultaneously grandiose and down-to-earth, a tribute to storytelling as elaborate ceremony and as personal spiritual practice.
The view in the mirror is clearer now, and the world it reflects exposes terrible flaws and profound beauty.
There are too many narratives to recount here. Works by JC Gonzo, Lillian Turner-Gracie, Rose Driscoll, Maxine Chelini and Elizabeth Mesh all add familial, spiritual or historical threads to the exhibition’s vast web. Mounting a show with such a broad titular prompt is a curatorial risk, but in the end, the success of Fawn’s effort doesn’t hinge on any one story. Something I Need You to Know is about the act of storytelling itself, and the way that stepping outside oneself can reveal surprising truths that are so often clouded by self-interest, ignorance, and fear.
Our nation did not essentially change on November 8, 2016. Bigotry existed before Donald Trump, and it wouldn’t have vanished had Hillary Clinton won. However, the election did bring some of my privileged assumptions about the world crashing down. The view in the mirror is clearer now, and the world it reflects exposes terrible flaws and profound beauty. See Fawn’s exhibition before it closes on February 15, and make sure to take a good look at your reflection on the way out.