A Clash of Cultures on the Santa Fe Biennial Trail

Kent Monkman, Bête Noir, 2014. Detail of installation at SITESantaFe. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Sargent’s Daughters Gallery.

Kent Monkman, Bête Noir, 2014. Detail of installation at Site Santa Fe. Courtesy of the artist and Sargent’s Daughters Gallery.

SANTA FE, N.M.—On the wall of art dealer Max Protetch’s mountaintop home, on the dusty Santa Fe trail near El Dorado, are hung nine of John Waters’s cruelly perceptive sayings about the art world.

“If you sell at auction, we’ll kill you.”

“See you in Basel, bitch.”

“Your child probably could do this.”

Protetch knows his audience. On this particular night, Max is hosting a dinner for much of the New Mexico emerging-contemporary art world. It’s the opening party of Site Santa Fe’s Sitelines 2014, co-curated by the veteran dealer’s love and partner Irene Hofmann, who’s also director of the biennial. In attendance, at either the dinner or the show: Jason Middlebrook, Pablo Helguera, Agnes Gund and curators from all over the world.

The sunset’s glorious, the beer copious, but the mood is slightly nervous. To some degree, this is a toast to a second chance for the biennial. Though often manned  by superstar curators —Dave Hickey, Robert Storr—the biennial had lost some mix of funding, focus and local support, some of its participants say. The current biennial was postponed a year. City Mayor Javier Gonzalez (the town’s first openly gay mayor, and a big supporter of the arts) says he’s aware that Santa Fe, long known for its art scene, faces increased competition from new fairs and events. The biennial—his daughter works as a “junior curator” at it, he notes proudly, though she’s a bit more of a guide—is a way to show collectors how serious they are.

The city is caught in a culture clash: It has more than 300 art galleries, including a branch of Gerald Peters that is one of the largest art galleries in the world. But, much like towns from Charleston to Vegas to Maui, it also something of a rep for a very specific style of local art. Here, think bright “homages” to Georgia O’Keeffe paintings and larger-than-life bronze figurines—of birds, of Indians, of early settlers, of dancing children, a stunning number overall in the city. In that climate, Site Santa Fe’s biennial is a gutsy anomaly, a 46-artist show that bucks local trends, offering virtually no painting and little realistic sculpture. Instead, savvy installations by Middlebrook, Canadian artist Kent Monkman (whose work blends queer issues and his Cree ancestry), and Helguera (who recreates a vintage gambling backroom, delightfully) dominate.

In something of a refreshing gimmick-slash-theme spearheaded by Hofmann, all the art is of the Americas, from Alaska down to Tierra del Fuego, all under the  rubric “Unsettled Landscapes.” In theory, this means regional curators culled the best from across thousands of miles. In practice, it can mean too many images of trees. Indeed, in its early rooms, Site Santa Fe takes the landscape title literally: Noted Bogatá artist Miller Lagos creates life-size trunks of carved paper; other artists employ wood or branches; Fordlandia is a vivid film about a failed Henry Ford business venture set in the jungles of the Amazon, etc.

Charles Stankievech, detail from The Soniferous Æther of The Land Beyond The Land Beyond, 2013. Courtesy the artist.

Charles Stankievech, detail from The Soniferous Æther of The Land Beyond The Land Beyond, 2013.
Courtesy the artist.

Strong works pop out, however, particularly in video. One piece is, literally, the talk of the Southwestern town: Charles Stankievech’s The Soniferous Æther of The Land Beyond The Land Beyond. The Berlin-based, Canadian-born artist traveled to the northernmost settlement in the world to film in an abandoned government spy facility. The result is something of a “science-fiction film,” he says excitedly, chatting in powerhouse collector Marlene Meyerson’s pool house. The piece stitches together dark but gleaming stills of the machinery and the empty halls, all set to clocks ticking on the wall and the whir of a 50-year-old projector. It’s hypnotic, lovely but scary, and occupants of a “collector van” touring the town can’t stop talking about it.

Another rarity: There’s a smattering of Caribbean artists on display and in attendance. Artist Deborah Jack, who has shown in the Brooklyn Museum, talks about her work with salt, but it’s really also about history. “The Dutch realized if you could salt the meat, you could travel further, and you could trade more,” she notes. At a surprisingly frank panel with the Caribbeans sponsored by Davidoff Art Initiative, Blue Curry, a Bahamas artist, lashes out at the regional label while a couple of other artists laugh about constantly being “discovered” by US art-worlders as if they had previously been working away in darkness. The audience, some of them the likely discoverers, roar with laughter.

When it comes to Site Santa Fe, even the most ardent lover of art could fairly ask: “not another biennial?” Hofmann says they’ve solved the problem, and the galleries do provide evidence of that. If you do the circuit of biennials, she says, they can tend to share the same “narrow roster of selected artists” (i.e., so-called biennial art). Their biennial has instead paid “particular attention to underground artists and perspectives.”

By and large, it has paid off.