Small Wonders: New Mexico Museum of Art

The New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe's shining collection of modern and contemporary art from the Southwest, is putting on an unusual exhibition this season, honing in on the obscure genre of "little pictures." The delightful selection of photo-based artwork—incorporating both the historic and the contemporary—invites visitors to "revel in the pleasures of the miniscule." The nineteenth-century photographs on view provide a historical grounding and framework for the six contemporary "small scale" artists: Susan R Goldstein, David Janesko, Jenna Kuiper, Jan Pietrzak, Liz Stekeete and Laurie Tümer.

Each of these photographers embodies a different approach to and fascination with the miniscule. Goldstein (whose Still Life is pictured above) explains on her website that her antique photographic collage work "emerged from my passion of exploring the world and collecting old, discarded, often damaged objects, ephemera and antique photographs." She picks these items up at antique stores and garage sales while on the road, examines and then repurposes them—while showcasing their distinctly anti-modern flair. "I can see the hand of the photographer when an image has been retouched, showing a presence that exists even in absence. This is a reoccurring theme in much of my work. Sometimes a fingerprint is embedded in an old negative. The passage of time is noted by fashion and degradation of print surfaces. The patina of age and handling adds another unique subtle element to the work. This work is the antithesis of the perfection digital photography has offered us."

If her series is the antithesis of 'digital perfection' in photography, then Janesko's work might be read as its thesis. His photographs belie an almost clinical approach to photographing the miniscule, honing into the atomic-level truths like only the camera can. Even when he deliberately eschews the digital in favor of "old-school" methods and materials—such as vintage photographic paper manufactured between 1957 and 1969 for his Panspermia series, or Fuji FP100C instant pack film for photographing the San Francisco Bay and Sierra Nevada Mountains in Scales of Change—the results feel distinctly modern in their stripped-down, minimalist approach to form and aesthetics. Like many modern artists, he seems to want the viewer to notice the pure shapes and colors in and of themselves, without any (perhaps distracting) narrative content. In his case, the preoccupation is with revealing the formal and aesthetic nature of the micro-level scientific phenomenon that compose our world—a unique example of the many ways in which art and science can augment and illuminate each other, or perhaps even be interpreted as two sides of the same coin. 

Somewhere in between—or rather, in a category all her own, one we might call "hyper-unreality"—are the works of Liz Steketee. In the various series on display on her website, she experiments with sewing or drawing onto her photographs. The jagged threads, a most unusual technique, both literally and metaphorically disrupt the reality and memory contained in the photo itself. They embody the sense of "uncanny," and resemble (likely intentionally) something that you might see a disturbed young girl producing in a horror movie. The drawn-upon images in Nectar and other series communicate a similar sense of underlying psychological unease. The figures often have their eyes or entire faces overridden by meme-like drawings. If we read such cartooning as a way of exaggerating and thus rendering explicit our emotions, then we might see these images as "more real" than a pure photograph in terms of how the people in these photographs were feeling at the time, or how they emotionally affect/affected the artist. 

On an activist note, photographer Laurie Tumer found herself spurred to create her Glowing Evidence series by a pesticide poisoning that occurred in her hometown. In her series statement, that she "found inspiration in the research of the environmental scientist Richard Fenske, who developed a safety-training demonstration using fluorescent tracer dyes and UV light to show farmworkers who work with pesticides, pictures of their exposures despite protective gear. The demonstration under UV light appears to chart the movement and settling of pesticides, and the images surprise, amuse, and correct misconceptions. These reasonable approximations of reality motivate workers to adhere to painstaking cleaning procedures when they return home. With support from Dr. Fenske's colleagues, I learned this technique, not necessarily for its usefulness to instruct but because of how unposed subjects seen under another visual spectrum appear theatrical, distilling a personal and collective story." The fluorescent tracer dyes, revealed in her photographs under UV light, do lend a theatrical quality to the figures and items rendered within; however, there is also a visceral sense of secret contamination, of an impurity that would otherwise go unseen—which will hopefully lend some much-needed pathos to her crusade against irresponsible pesticide use in the United States. 

The opening reception will take place on Friday, October 7, at 5:30 PM, featuring accompanying music by Deborah Leah Ungar of Rumelia with Jeremy Bleich, composer and multi-instrumentalist.


New Mexico Museum of Art

107 West Palace Avenue

Santa Fe, NM 87501