‘Trio’ review in Albuquerque Journal North

Albuquerque Journal Venue North Friday, June 20, 2008Familiar ApproachBy Hollis Walker
Of the Journal
    The current exhibit at Chiaroscuro features three contemporary women artists who are kin by more than blood. But for starters, Nora Naranjo-Morse is the mother of Eliza Naranjo-Morse and great-aunt of Rose B. Simpson. The latter also is the daughter of artists: Her mother is renowned sculptor Roxanne Swentzell, whose whimsical figurative clay sculptures have become iconic to contemporary American Indian art; and her father is Patrick Simpson, a contemporary wood and metal artist. Nora, Eliza and Rose all have familial connections at Santa Clara Pueblo, where the Naranjo name has been synonymous with extraordinary pottery for many generations. All three women use clay in their work, but in very different ways.
    I have shown Nora’s and Rose’s work in galleries I directed in the past.
    Nora is perhaps one of the first of her family to bridge Pueblo tradition and contemporary aesthetics in her ceramic art. She uses traditional methods of gathering clay and coil-building to make her sculptures. Last year she created and installed “Always Becoming,” a commissioned series of five earth-based, mixed-media towers, at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
    Eliza, a 2003 graduate of Skidmore College with an art degree, has been painting on raw canvas in clay and other organic materials. I was impressed with her work in “Lifting the Veil: New Mexico Women and the Tricultural Myth” at the Institute of American Indian Arts last April and wrote about it in this column.
    I first saw Rose’s work early in 2007. She graduated with a bachelor of fine arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts last May; her portfolio exhibit, held at her mother’s gallery at Poeh Museum, included works ranging from painting and figurative clay to fiber art and etching plates.
    Nora works in a sort of netherworld between abstraction and representation (including American Indian symbology), of which the two new works in this exhibit are good examples. “Off the Board,” four giant-sized ceramic forms shaped to approximate chess pieces, anthropomorphize those game board pieces. Out of context, the pieces are no longer players, except as they interact with each other; and even that potential game has been proscribed to four, suggesting a balance of power— depending upon alliances made. Modern chess is essentially a Western European game (though it has roots in much earlier Chinese games) of hierarchy and strategy, hinting that Nora’s is a critique of such real-life games. Her pieces are cleanly segmented with a gritty texture like plaster; they beg to be touched and are reminiscent of the giant outdoor chess sets of Europe.
    Her other new work for this exhibit, “The Texture of Her,” is a 50-inch-tall segmented figure with breasts and shoulders, but sans head and arms. Her body comprises what appear to be three conjoined coiled pots that might represent the multiple roles of a woman, or the stages of life. Strokes go around her circumference; her stucco-like surface has cracked and coalesced into the freckles, wrinkles, bruises, age spots, scars and broken veins of a lifetime. Who needs a head? Here we are reminded that the skin is the body’s largest organ, its most effective protector and its greatest revealer.
    Eliza’s paintings in gesso, graphite and clay on canvas, like her mother’s, are indeterminate, at once drawings and paintings. “Birthday Blizzard” is Pop Art-like: Five cakes with lit candles askew are netted in a blizzard of snowflakes. But I like where her less representative pieces, particularly two of cloud formations, are headed. Their subtle colors, the vertical pencil lines, the slight sparkle of mica in the clay, are dynamic and enigmatic and therefore more interesting. One hardly notices she has executed these clouds almost entirely in shades of brown clay.
    Rose’s work to date has often included self-portraits. Though self-portraits can be expressions of self-indulgence, they also allow the artist to explore and express her personal identity. “Gaining Perspective” is an elongated clay bust of an abstracted torso out of whose gut the artist carved a niche that holds a small figure with antennae. The little figure’s legs and arms are drawn into its body, eyes wide and antennae set to receive. It embodies the intuitive secret self, the inner child, the real person each of us hides within (and sometimes hides from). The texture, color and form of the entire piece is on target; the face is Rose’s, though the head is bald, another self-revelatory symbol. This is a poignant piece with a universality that can be difficult to achieve in self-portraiture.
    All three women have been engaged for months working as a team on site-specific sculptural installations for SITE Santa Fe‘s Biennial, which opens to the public Sunday. It is the first time American Indian artists have been included in a SITE biennial exhibition. Perhaps because of that commitment, the Chiaroscuro exhibit doesn’t include as much new work as one might hope. That said, it nevertheless provides a good survey of what these women are doing and demonstrates why they— of the many American Indian artists available— were selected to participate in the biennial.
    Contact Hollis Walker at hwalker259@earthlink.net
    If you go
    WHAT: “Trio: New Works by Nora Naranjo-Morse, Rose B. Simpson and Eliza Naranjo-Morse”
    WHEN: Through July 12
    WHERE: Chiaroscuro Gallery, 439 Camino del Monte Sol
    CONTACT: Call 992-0711 or visit www.chiaroscurosantafe.com