Central Features Contemporary Art, Albuquerque
October 14 – November 18, 2017
Central Features is blank in all the right ways. Treading across the unassuming polished concrete floors to the center of the gallery—which is partitioned into one large immaculately white room and several smaller ones—viewers are immediately treated to contrast. The second floor suite’s casement windows look out on Central Avenue, and now, as it is just getting on to afternoon, gorgeous high desert light spills in, illuminating the nine large drawings that comprise the whole of Santa Fe multi-disciplinary artist Nina Elder’s most recent exhibition, New Works. The charcoal pieces, in every shade of gray and black, have their own gravity in the bright gallery space. The viewer is pulled in and, moving from the long view into better proximity, sees impressive details that come into sharp focus. There’s great nuance in Elder’s hand.
New Works are ugly landscapes—not ugly in their technique or execution but in their content. That’s why they are all the more important: they are true. These nine large drawings—each several feet in dimension—fly in the face of the historic canon of Western landscapes. There is nothing idyllic held in their white frames, no romantic rolling fields or soft, white clouds. Instead, these are the scenes of an oft-ignored reality, finally bubbling over—true landscapes of the American West as those who live here now know it: a cartography of productivity, need, and, inevitably, waste. Waste is perhaps only implied; it depends on the perspective you bring with you to the gallery. Elder is marvelously restrained in passing judgment as she contextualizes the work in her artist statement—she understands that we are all accomplices to these scenes of brutalization. As research for this series, Elder, who has traveled and completed residencies throughout the west, visited Oregon, Alaska, and the Yukon, bearing witness to the camouflaged demands the modern world makes on the land. Gravel pits, lumber yards, mines, clear-cut forests, these are the subjects Elder has long been fascinated with, exploring their terrains for more than a decade in various work cycles. In the drawings of New Works, Elder primarily uses charcoal to evoke the dismal scenes of industry, though, throughout her travels, she collected waste from the sites—ash from paper mills and pulverized mining ore—which blend with the charcoal on the heavy paper, lending depth to each illustration. There is no pure white negative space. In these scenes, everything is cast in dreary gray.
The three pieces that greet the viewer of New Works are zoomed-out landscapes that, in their circuitous clear-cut pathways and planed, vacant mesas totally empty of people, suggest the topography of ancient civilizations. But, bending closer to take in the hand-breaking detail, we see these mazes cut into the canyons are the scars of industry. Here, the manmade and the natural almost imperceptibly merge into patterns that could take hours to explore with the eye. From here, Elder zooms in with four studies of lumberyards. Felled trees—their rings, their years, exposed—confront viewers with each tree’s long history on this Earth. Forest shadows loom in the background; they are either ghosts of the past or looking on at their own grim future. Impressive in their technical detail but less striking in their content are two studies of pattern, one of the endless pebbling hills of a gravel pit and then those downed trees again, forever stacked skyward. “Responding to the impacts of American life, these drawings are documents and memorials,” Elder writes in her artist statement. A “bearing witness.” In these pieces we see both directions of the timeline: we see the natural world as it exists, and we see how we have altered it. In the latter, we also glimpse the future, which, elucidated by the literal charcoal and ash darkness of these drawings, is appropriately apocalyptic. In our day-to-day lives, it is easy—encouraged, even—to keep an emotional distance from these landscapes and what they mean. Viewers of New Works are not allowed to do so. Enclosed in the gallery, we must acknowledge these landscapes and ourselves as party to their creation. Truth doesn’t always equate to beauty, but there is certainly beauty in searching Elder’s work—and by proxy, our own moral frameworks—for their substance and effect.