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Seeking Santa Fe

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Photo: John Huba

The final layer, Anglo products, can be found in the galleries on Canyon Road and at Site Santa Fe, where a biennial exhibition (curated by, variously, Dave Hickey from Las Vegas or Rob Storr from New York, and next year by Lance Fung, also from New York) brings cutting-edge aesthetics to the rail yard. Across the street,  James Kelly Contemporary does the same all year round in a newly refurbished warehouse. On the other side of the warehouse, at Victoria Price, Cassina’s molded wenge chairs give a new context to Navajo rugs and beaten silver ewers. Georgia O’Keeffe has her own, remarkable, museum. For some reason, a great many artists work in steel, making large heavy things for the hotels and small intense things for themselves. They are called fabricators. Tom Joyce, described as more of a blacksmith, received a MacArthur. Henry Noestheden imposes precise engineering on huge sheets of steel; he showed minimalist panels at a Second Street gallery called Phil Space, and was stunned when one of them was whisked off to Art Basel Miami Beach. Larry Swann, a monkish man who only recently left the commune where he had lived for over 20 years, makes adventurous steel furniture that would be a wow in Milan, if he believed in wow, if he believed in Milan.

And then there’s the third weekend in August. Since 1922, artists from North American tribes have gathered in Santa Fe for the three days of Indian Market. The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) gives prizes on Friday night, from Best in Show to subsets like Most Innovative Use of Traditional Technique and Materials in Beadwork and Quill. I like to get to the plaza before morning, in the black privacy of night. The people who collect Indian art are driven. They’ll wait all night in front of the white tents in the plaza, huddled on folding chairs, clutching thermoses and blankets, for the prize object from their favorite artist. Before dawn on Saturday, as the sleepy artists slide out of vans—license plates: Arizona’s cactus, Oklahoma’s tomahawk—to set up their booths, the collectors dart, ripe with cash. The transactions happen in a quick hush long before the Plaza Café opens at five. The collectors leave at once with their trophies, often by private plane.

Diego Romero isn’t there at dawn. The potter is the hot art-star of the market, a postmodern prankster who appropriates Greek figures and sometimes uses the gold-glaze technique of Sèvres. He decorates his pots with cartoon characters, a badass pair he calls the Chongo Brothers, whose antics transform pots and bowls in the Mimbres style into acid social commentary. The Robert Nichols Gallery shows him, and he’s internationally known. The son of a Cochiti Pueblo painter, he grew up with his Anglo mother in Berkeley, studied at the IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts) in Santa Fe, has an MFA from UCLA, and collects comic books and action figures. By the time Diego Romero gets to his booth, a collector has been waiting for a long time. Wearing a western shirt and a huge turquoise bolo, he’s a dealer in comic books, and he knows his man. Before anyone can intervene, a huge bowl depicting the Chongo Brothers sitting in a garbage dump has gone to him, in exchange for a small sum of money and a large amount of old comic books.

Indian Market is like all outdoor markets: you make a first pass, absorb nothing, get coffee, register what you like the most, and begin to dart and race at things. You find yourself standing behind a mass of women trying to get a look at Clarence Lee’s bracelets incised with scenes of Pueblo life. His brooch of a coyote on a Harley looks like the bikers who swarm through the Southwest in the early fall. By the time you have been there a few hours, you know that the tents along San Francisco Street are mainly pottery: tiny precise graphic pieces from Acoma Pueblo, big shiny orange micaceous-clay or incised black ones from Santa Clara. You know that the Cree couple are charging $900 this year for their beaded boxes, and that Martine Lovato’s inlaid bracelets are $5,000; and you do what I do, which is head for the kachinas.

These dolls represent the deities embodied by dancers in Pueblo and Hopi ceremonies, and are ritually given to children during the dances. In Hopi land you can buy them at Joe Day’s gallery, near Shungopavi. At Indian Market, the Hopi dolls and rattles stand out, neither embroidered nor fired nor incised, just painted wood for the kachina dolls, and painted gourds for the rattles. Manfred Susunkewa is in a booth facing the bandstand on Palace Avenue; his kachinas are subtler and artier than those you find at Shungopavi. They go fast.

Stacy and Elsie Talahytewa’s rattles are in a booth that faces the Plaza Café: imperious bird gourds, mud-men dolls, rattles with rain symbols on them, or bird tracks. My favorite is the squash gourd painted to look like a squash, a perfect signifier signifying itself.


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