Sunday, August 19, 2012

"This is the world you're joining..."

Venutian Soldiers, creation and photo by Virgil Oritz

"Better make sure it's what you want."

That message and image came across very strongly during our whirlwind week in New Mexico.

It was an experience I don't think we'll soon forget. It was altogether an astonishing time in the Land of Enchantment. Our encounters with the arts -- literary, visual and performing arts -- seemed to go much deeper this time than in the past when we've tended just to skim along the surface of things. This time, we felt like we were very much a part of the arts/cultural scene, and the question was, "Is this really what we want?"

There was some disappointment this trip to be sure, as certain practical intentions went unfulfilled and some things seemed to go haywire, but there was so much unexpected richness of experience in contrast to what didn't go right. That's pretty much the way things go in New Mexico. As I said at some point in the adventure, "Pressure doesn't work in New Mexico."

We've been involved in one way or another in New Mexico's writers and literary community for quite some time, but we've stayed on the periphery of the rest of the arts scene, particularly in Santa Fe, since an early encounter with some of the patrons of the Santa Fe Opera decades ago.

We came to understand at that time that we were dealing with a very rarefied realm of almost inconceivable wealth and patronage. It's a realm that we mock for its pretensions, and yet without it there would be a much more -- subdued, shall we say -- arts and cultural community in Santa Fe and New Mexico, and I'm not sure that we would want that or that the world would somehow be a better place with less arts and culture in the City Different and much of the rest of the state.

The Virgil Ortiz reception we attended on Thursday (August 16) was a distinct contrast to the book signing we went to the day before, and to me the contrast was a demonstration of one of the many dichotomies in New Mexico that are reflected in arts and the arts and cultural community.

Things are changing, and Virgil is on the edge of that change, as he's been taking New Mexico Pueblo traditions and turning them inside out and upside down for quite a while now. His Venutian Soldiers are... well, let's just say, "eye openers." They are not a complete break from the past, far from it. It's not his intention to break from the past, it's his intention to illuminate the past through contemporary imagery and iconography, and I think he succeeds in ways no one can yet fully appreciate.

Virgil is not all that young -- he's in his 40's -- and he's been around for long enough, typically in the heady realm of high fashion, that he runs the risk of becoming jaded about everything. But he doesn't seem to be falling into the trap of ennui.

The reception included a smattering of Old Farts like me, lots of fashion fan-boys and -girls, many of them Natives, a handful of academics, and quite a few people who had known Virgil for many years. It was a vibrant mix that even attracted the police for a time. The police presence was a distraction from the festivities to say the least, and yet it seemed strangely in keeping with the whole feel of the evening. That story will have to be told, but not just now...

What seemed missing from Virgil's reception was the Wealthy Patron factor. That seems odd when I think about it... I can't recall seeing even one of the usual Santa Fe Major Arts Patrons in attendance, though there may have been one or more there and I didn't notice. It was that kind of event. So much going on, you're bound to miss something.

Yet the day before, at the book signing, it seemed that in addition to plenty of artists, there were more than a few of the Patrons who keep the whole scene going. Perhaps they felt safer...

Virgil is dealing with some of the fundamentals of the Pueblo People and Pueblo history in New Mexico and he isn't holding back, at least not that I can see. As he says, the whole idea of the Venutian Soldiers series -- which includes pottery pieces, statuary, and photographs at this point, but which is intended to include a film or video production and an illustrated story/graphic novel -- is to highlight the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, "the First American Revolution."

The Pueblo Revolt has never been an easy topic in New Mexico as for many residents it is still living history, especially among the Spanish and Indians. Our place isn't far from the Salinas Pueblos on the east side of the Manzanos, and those ruins when first encountered don't really clue you in to what happened, you have to do some digging and studying to understand it. The Salinas Pueblos were abandoned sometime in the 1670's, probably around 1676 or 1678, not long before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. They were abandoned due to a number of factors: drought, disease, attacks by Plains tribes, abuse by Spanish clergy, starvation. I'm sure there was more to the story of their abandonment than that. But I have long felt that it was the stories from those pueblos that set the stage for the revolt so soon to come along the Rio Grande and beyond.

The Pueblo Revolt was a success; the Spanish were thrown out of New Mexico and the Franciscan clergy paid a heavy price in blood for their decades of exploitation and abuse of the Pueblo people and the suffering they caused among those who only wanted to be left alone.

Virgil has made telling that story his life's work. Many other Native artists, maybe most, never mention it and never refer to it in their work. It's as if it never happened, though everyone knows it did.

When I first saw Virgil's pieces for the Venutian Soldiers exhibit, my interpretation was that he was making mock of the high fashion world he's been involved with for quite a while. The models are stunning in costume as Venutian Soldiers and in person signing posters at the reception. Dolled up as "Venutians" they certainly have the appearance of being some sort of fever dream of an overheated fashion imagination. I knew nothing, initially, about the 1680 connection at all; I saw them for what I saw, unfiltered as it were. And I saw them as a not-very-nice comment on the nature of the fashion industry.

Well, they may be that on one level, but there is so much more I would come to find out.

In Virgil's retelling of the Pueblo Revolt, his Venutian Soldiers are contemporary Super-hero versions of the Pueblo warriors who evicted the Spanish from New Mexico all those many years ago. He's re-conceiving the historical struggle of his people in contemporary -- and visually compelling -- terms that can appeal simultaneously to a wide range of modern spectators.

The arts patrons of Santa Fe may have stayed away from Virgil's reception because they might not have felt safe there.

I could spend quite a lot of time on the question of the very wealthy patrons who are the underlying reason why there is so much art in New Mexico. Without the patrons, the arts would have a very different character and might be much less prominent in New Mexico culture.

Virgil comes from a long line of Cochiti Pueblo potters and artists and has been active in the field of the arts and fashion for decades. He's using what he knows deep in his soul, dressing it up in contemporary clothing (or rather lack...) and telling us a story that most of us have no idea of.

In that, he's taken a step way beyond where most of the Santa Fe Indian artists have chosen to stay.

And he seems to know it's not going to be easy... The struggle has just begun.

For us? Is this the world we want to be part of?

Do we really have a choice?


  1. Sounds like a wonderful trip; look forward to more installments. When I worked for the ballet, I had a similar love/hate relationship with the wealthy patrons. I kind of liked them all, despite their quirks, and not a few of them worked very hard when they could have been riding a dressage horse or something.
    Like it or not, anything with no rich admirers is going to struggle in our new gilded age.

  2. I think part of the problem with the arts patrons in New Mexico is historical. They see themselves as old Spanish grandees with nearly god-like powers over the Little People including the artists who are often treated like exotic pets.

    When you believe your whole career is dependent on the good will of a handful of extremely rich and quite capricious/arrogant grandees, what won't you do to please them?

    And then there's the whole Hollywood "I'm so important and you're not and I can make you or break you" factor... which ruined Taos they tell me. Or ask the locals around Pecos about Val Kilmer.

    Part of why I'm really intrigued with what Virgil Ortiz has set out to do is that while he circulates in some very heady realms of art and fashion, he's absolutely rooted to his pueblo of Cochiti where he has his studio and does most of his work; he's strongly bound to his family with whom he works closely; his models are his artistic collaborators in nearly everything rather than merely hangers for his clothing lines; and he has made telling the story of the Pueblo Revolt his life's work. He's on a creative knife edge, and yet he refuses to be anyone's performing monkey.

    You can feel how nervous people are at what he is doing. You get a sense that he's pretty nervous about it too.

    But he doesn't seem to be backing away. Good for him. If he were dependent on the grandees, you can bet he'd be on a much safer path.