Poeh Cultural Center, Pojoaque
March 1, 2018 – tbd
It only takes a few seconds of looking before the optical illusion begins to work on my eyes. The white on the canvas jumps forward and begins to pulsate softly against the black ground. I simply stare without moving until my consciousness snaps back and my eyes adjust. Then, the lines stay put again. In terms of painting, Agnes Martin’s understated canvases come to mind. Frank Stella’s oeuvre often trended toward visual vibration, too. The lines here were of neither modernists’ making, nor was this work strictly Modernist. Rather, I was in front of the black-and-white paintings of David Naranjo (Santa Clara Pueblo) on exhibit at the Poeh Cultural Center in Pojoaque. Naranjo is a recent graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts, and some of the works that hung for his thesis show last spring are on view again in this spare exhibition that also included unpainted laser-cut tableta headdresses.
For the first grouping of paintings, Naranjo mixed micaceous oxide into his black paint, creating a subtly sparkling surface. The chips of mica made me think of the Poeh itself, a complex that reflects the light of the sun with the power of countless tiny mirrors. Both the Tower Gallery and its surroundings—as well as Naranjo’s paintings—evince a material most often mixed into vessels: ollas, comales and cazuelas. Water is said to become purified when stored in micaceous vessels. Some even say that food takes on a sweet flavor when cooked in the warmth of mica. Indeed, mica, a material indigenous to this region, is best known for its ability to withstand heat.
The references to pottery delve deeper, though. The black-and-white patterning that covers his large-scale canvases and wrap around their edges are a direct reference to two pioneering historic cultures: the Mimbres and Chacoan. Both cultures began cultivating crops over 1000 years ago and making geometric black-on-white pottery. Chacoan and Mimbres vessels are of their time and yet, in a way, timeless, projecting a design sensibility anyone schooled in the twentieth century would no doubt (and did) aspire to.
Copies of these ancestral designs have spiralled in every direction: magnets, Fred Harvey ceramic ware, and even mugs found in the Chaco National Historic Park’s gift shop. I even recently saw Mimbres-style wrapping paper in a store window while walking down Galisteo Street. And yet Naranjo’s designs, more like citations than copies, had an effect that was far from commercial. The paintings were stunning, scaled up, and unabashedly flat, with swirls, lines, steps, and diamonds cascading across the four pairs, each installed edge to edge. I wished, though, that there was more space between each work, quite simply to see how the paintings continued even along the sides of the canvas.
Just to the right was a large square work, simply titled Watershed. It, like the others, was black and white, or in the language of pottery, black on white. This one appeared to gesture toward closer relations, its design of scallops and thick diagonal lines reminiscent of Pueblo pottery.
Directly across from the Mimbres/Chaco paintings was yet another series: three paintings based upon embroidered dance kilts, flanked by two paintings based on sashes. In each, bands of red, forest green, and black cut across a tan ground, a color similar to the old sacking material once used to make them. In the language of painting, the tan might be considered negative space, but in its original form, it is the tapestry that wraps around the body.
In all, the cultural references are self-evident, yet it wasn’t until I saw the exhibition in its entirety that I began to think about the relationship between pottery and dance. Some geometric designs are shared across media and have been for generations. Here, the message or design, as Jake Viarrial put it while giving a tour that I accidentally walked into, could be transposed across media, even into painting. And yet, in doing so, the works take on an altogether different meaning: no longer utilitarian objects brought to life by use, but paintings that cite and bear forth multiple sources, each inviting long periods of close looking, some even playing tricks on the eye.