By Bob Hicks
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Guys, guys, gimme a break, will ya, please? Just pipe down a little bit. Other people are complaining about the noise.”
The guard at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, a tall friendly fellow in his 30s, is smiling a little sheepishly. But he has a job to do.
The objects of his shushing are a couple of geezers who’ve obviously taken a swat or two at life. They seem in their 70s: “Far as I’m concerned, the world didn’t exist before 1936,” the one named Hump has made known. A quarter Indian, a quarter Hispanic, half European grab-bag and all New Mexican leatherskin, Hump has been responding loudly and personally to the stuff he and his friend are seeing in the museum’s gallery of historical art from this Southwestern state. If they seem like a couple of old bulls in a china shop, there’s not a shred of doubt that they’re eagerly engaged with the china. And that, I think, is why the guard is disposed to caution them in a kindly manner.
“That artist must have had a real bad nightmare the night before he made this one,” Hump says as he stands before a mildly abstract sculpture. He and his friend seem particularly interested in the pottery, about which they have firm opinions.
Pieces with obvious ethnic subject matter get them to reminiscing. “You know, it was really bad around here for the Indians back in the ’50s,” the quieter guy comments. “Kids now, they got no idea what their parents and grandparents went through.”
Hump agrees. He remembers driving through the Deep South in the 1950s, the separate-but-not-equal, the ridiculous fact that white and black men couldn’t even pee in the same place. He laughs when he recalls the shock and horror that hit some white folks he knew when they discovered there was African blood in the old family tree. “Me, I’m Heinz 57,” he says with mongrel glee.
The other guy brings up the old president — “Washington, Jefferson, one of them. Not Lincoln; I know that” — who sired a bunch of kids with his slave mistress. Hump recalls the days when he was a long-haul trucker and could have got a sizable federal startup grant available to people who had Native American heritage. But he needed documented proof of his tribal affiliation, and his mother was too embarrassed about her Indian bloodline to supply it.
“Yeah, so that was that,” he says. “So it goes.” He brightens. “Way I figure it, you are what you are. Be proud of it, and the hell with what anybody thinks. Pardon my French.”
They pause by a small, folk-inspired sculpted piece of a man and a woman in a corn field, with an old red tractor to the side. “That’s like mine,” the quieter guy beams. “Nineteen-forty-six Ford, still running. Helluva good machine.” Not to be outdone, Hump brings up the old John Deere his family used to have, with the attachment that let you turn it into a little makeshift sawmill.
Folk-inspired pieces are among the most interesting in this gallery of the museum, which houses an ongoing exhibition called Common Ground: Art in New Mexico. As in many regional collections, the quality of individual pieces varies wildly. A few of the best are by artists known beyond the region: Peter Hurd, John Sloan, Elaine De Kooning. A few seem to be here because, well, they were done quite a while ago and they’ve survived. It would take more time to familiarize myself with several other artists, historical and contemporary, who have been engaged in interesting ways with this complex culture and patch of land.
Quality matters no matter where you are, yet regional art scenes simply don’t play by international rules. Context may not be everything, but it’s quite a bit, as I was reminded by a brief encounter a few blocks away in Albuquerque’s Old Town, where a trio of musicians were playing Feelings on two pan pipes and a guitar. The effect was a little jolting and weirdly transformative. Sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it.
The stuff in Common Ground, is, frankly, more engaging than most of the paintings in the museum’s current big-deal show, Turner to Cezanne: Masterpieces from the Davies Collection, National Museum Wales. The works were collected by a pair of wealthy sisters mostly between 1908 and 1923, and although they bought the right names, they didn’t often buy the right works. Sisley, Daumier, Millet, Renoir, Bonnard: all excellent artists, but rarely represented here at their best, or even their second-best. There’s historical interest in a lot of the work — the satirist Daumier’s lesser-known oil paintings, for instance. My favorite is a small Turner oil, The Storm, ca. 1840-45; a perfectly devastating ocean roil. Or maybe my favorite is Renoir’s 1912 Conversation, an oil painting of a man and woman sitting in disturbing quietude in a wood. A couple of decent Millets are in the mix, and Bonnard’s late Sunlight at Vernon (1920), and Cezanne’s roughly energetic 1877-78 The Francois Zola Dam, with its brusque slabs of geological/geometrical shape that suggest, in hindsight, little prefaces to Cubism.
What would Hump and his buddy think of this Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and French Realist stuff? I’m not sure, although I’m betting they’d find some personal connections, maybe with Millet’s class-conscious agricultural scenes or his social-activist The Good Samaritan.
And maybe Hump and Friend aren’t up on art history or group etiquette, but in a way, so what? They were looking at the art, and responding to it, and making it a part of their own lives. And, yes, sometimes their enthusiasm overflowed. But every time they return to a museum or a gallery their thoughts about what they see will broaden and deepen just a little bit, and isn’t that a very big part of what this art game’s all about?
My thought: Every museum could use a few Humps and Friends to sweep away the cobwebs of orthodoxy and get the juices flowing fresh again. Even if the “interlopers” need a little friendly shushing now and again.
ILLUSTRATIONS, from top:
- Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, designed by Antoine Predock. Wikimedia Commons.
- J.M.W. Turner, “The Storm,” ca. 1840-45. Oil on canvas, 12 3/4 x 21 1/8 in., National Museum of Wales; Miss Margaret S. Davies Bequest, 1963 (NMWA 509) Courtesy American Federation of Arts.