City of Mud, Santa Fe
September 15–November 30, 2018
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I find myself embarrassed by my own lack of creativity. I’m making my way through the interior of City of Mud, the gallery across the street from Tune-up Cafe, and I keep pausing in an attempt to label things. “Is this an artwork?” I ask director Nancy Nichols. “It’s a chair,” she tells me. We move on to a tiered shelf of mid-century glass vessels: delicate sea-urchin vases, hand-blown cups, and a translucent, flower-like fruit bowl.
Zone: Visionary and Contemplative Art is a group show of more than twenty (mostly) local artists, and Nichols and her partner, Sasha Pyle, were not limited by media as they developed the aesthetic of the exhibition. Glass cases hold silver chromatic coin pouches, coils of beaded necklaces, and rainbow trays that glisten like asphalt oil spills. Local holograph wizard August Muth showcases two tunneling wall works, and next to him, Leah Siegel’s digital dye-sublimation photographs on aluminum blink schizophrenically at their audience. If you’re inclined to slip one of these works onto your wrist, there’s an opportunity for that—a nearby case displays a line of Siegel’s dog-tag earrings and cuff bracelets. Everything seems set on either drawing you into a trance state or supplying you with the necessary accoutrements for your voyage.
It is likely, however, that you will quickly gravitate to the back of the space, where Woody Vasulka and Nick Deamer’s Machine rotates above a wide mirrored floor. The work occupies a good third of the gallery, hanging from a single axis on the ceiling. Fans around the structure propel circumference lines of steel, a grid of aluminum, and a latticework of fiberglass into orbit. It is only after several minutes of standing in awe of this simple mechanism that I begin to unravel other layers of the work: two cameras recording the live motion of the mobile and an effects processor morphing the video footage, so that, at near-real time, an abstracted animation of the structure itself (varying depending on light quality of the space) is re-cast against the back wall of the installation. At each moment, Machine captures and redefines itself, never repeating. The work stumbles into beauty as a by-product of function, rather than setting out toward an aesthetic. Machine is an assemblage of raw parts, which, each given a role (to rotate, to reflect, to record), amalgamate to perform the ultimate task of becoming a single self.
If you aren’t directly familiar with the work of Woody Vasulka, you may be unknowingly familiar with his, and partner Steina’s, influence on art in the latter half of the twentieth century and legacy as pioneering video artists (the duo, in ’71, founded The Kitchen in New York, a venue/exhibition space for the likes of Laurie Anderson, Nam June Paik, Philip Glass, and Cindy Sherman). Deamer has worked with Vasulka side-by-side for years, initially as an assistant, and now a close collaborator. Nichols tells me the pair often drops by several times a week to upkeep, tweak, and refine the piece.
While certain clusters within Zone bend toward excess in seeming pursuit of spectacle, I still found myself dragging my feet on the way to the door after my second visit. City of Mud is the most unpretentious gallery I’ve been to in Santa Fe, and the fact that it is the chosen exhibition space of so many local legends (not to mention those of international acclaim), testifies to its spirit and role in a city steaming with “art” yet often bogged by artifice. The gallery, like a tipsy in-law at a family wedding, raises its glass in toast of Santa Fe: “how beautiful,” it laughs, “our city of mud!”