Friday, November 8, 2013

"We shoulda toined left at Albuquerque..."

The running gags in Warner Brothers cartoons got burned into my brainstem when I was little, being as that I, along with hundreds of other young'n's was plonked down at the Kiddie Matinee at the Covina Theatre every Saturday morning so that the grownups could have some free time.

The cartoons on the teevee back in the '50's tended to be of the dancing flatware and teapot sort, or dancing bones and such. Warner Brothers burlesques were saved for the big screen.

Some of the locations Bugs was getting lost trying to find -- Coachella, Pismo Beach and the like -- are places I knew pretty well; in fact, as I wrote "Pismo Beach" I could virtually catch a whiff of the piquant aroma of the bracing wind at the pier and beach, and easily imagine picking up a rope of kelp from the sand. We never did clamming there that I can recall (the clams were probably all gone by the time I was making pilgrimage), but "going to the beach" was a regular routine when I was a kid. I thought it was great that Bugs wanted to go too!

This place called "Albuquerque," though, was something quite exotic to me. Where was it, anyway? My mother knew it, or knew of it, having been through it on the train and driving on Route 66, and probably having stopped at one of the many motor courts lining neon-draped Central Avenue back in the day. Route 66 originally went through Albuquerque along 4th Street and Broadway, after heading down from Santa Fe and the torturous La Bajada Hill, but in 1937 the route was shifted to bypass all of that and turn Central Avenue into an iconic traveler's paradise. Of sorts.

Well, Albuquerque has its reputation to consider after all.

We were up in Santa Fe on Monday for another of the talks at the Art Museum we've been attending every couple of weeks, and the topic was "Art in Albuquerque" (cough, cough) which, of course, is always the source of much mirth and puzzlement to art drenched Santa Feans. Albuquerque? You must be kidding!

Compared to the reputation of Santa Fe, of course, Albuquerque is the rough hinterlands where there be [meth or other kinds of ] monsters and such. Where is Albuquerque, exactly, anyway? It's not as if they don't actually know -- of course they do -- it is more a frame of mind in which "that place" simply goes unrecognized as anything but... well, icky.

It's an attitude I find both obnoxious and amusing at the same time. Parts of Albuquerque are delightful, especially the enclaves north along the Rio Grande. There really is nothing like them in Santa Fe, despite all the nose-in-the-air dismissal of things ABQ from the better classes in the capital city.

The city is gritty on the whole, there's no way around that, but it's not quite the "shithole" it's made out to be by all and sundry -- and even by some of its residents. It is, for New Mexico, shockingly urban, and I think that's the real issue that motivates some of the disparagement of the place. It's not like the rest of the villages, towns and settlements in the state.... except, in fact, it really is, it's just much larger than the rest of them. MUCH larger. Too large in my estimation, but that's another issue.

It is the metastasized version of the rest of them; what they'd likely be like if they grew so large so suddenly, aspects of which Santa Fe itself is notorious for, especially along Cerrillos Road, where there are two, count them, two Wal-Marts, however many car dealers, cheap lodging (except nothing is cheap in Santa Fe) and every kind of fast food joint imaginable. Not only that, but the site of the former Indian School, demolished a few years ago against the objections of preservationists, is a sad reminder of how transitory so much of the storied past can be. (Of course the Indians who tore it down said, "Good riddance!" And for good reason, but that's another tale for another time.)

But Art in Albuquerque? Who'd a thunk it? Our speaker on Monday, the emeritus Curator of 20th Century Art at the Museum (retired in August), had an interesting take on that question, pointing to the Alvarado Hotel, erected in 1902, as the center of the city's cultural life -- and "art," such as it was, mostly Indian gimcracks -- for generations. The Alvarado had to come down before "Real"Art, "Serious" Art in Albuquerque could flourish or even exist outside the University.

Well. Isn't that something? In fact the Alvarado was demolished, against the objections of the few preservationists around to care, in 1970, and its loss is still mourned, although an ersatz version was re-erected between 2002 and 2006 as the Alvarado Transportation Center, not quite the same ambiance as the historic hotel and depot, but strikingly reminiscent of them, at least from a distance.

But why was the destruction of the Alvarado necessary to unleash the artistic and creative spirit in New Mexico's largest city? Why demolish the landmark in the first place? "Because culture."

According to Traugott, the issue was that the hotel had been the center of culture in Albuquerque, and it was a very narrowly defined culture in his estimation. The problem for art and artists in Albuquerque was that Albuquerque was set up as a "business" community, and art, "serious" art, wasn't on the "business" agenda; there wasn't a market for it, nor was there any marketing infrastructure. There were no galleries, no museums, nothing. All there was in support of art in Albuquerque was at UNM, and that came late.

This was in total contrast to Santa Fe and Taos, where the market-for-art framework and infrastructure was installed and operational soon after the turn of the 20th Century, and it wasn't long before Santa Fe and Taos were being marketed world wide as art-tourism destinations. Not Albuquerque, where, at the Hotel Alvarado, the Indian Room was the sole "artistic" destination outside the University, and the Indian Room was crammed with curios, not art at all.

There was art -- as art -- being done at the University in abundance, mostly in the modernist style under the guidance and leadership of Raymond Jonson (who would come down from Santa Fe on that La Bajada route, which took hours) quite in contrast to the representational traditions of Santa Fe and Taos, and later on, artists from Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California would trek to UNM to establish an even more modernist cohort at UNM, but until there were galleries and until there was a museum in Albuquerque, what was done at the University largely stayed there or was dispersed without recognition of where it came from.

While he never said so, it seemed to me that Traugott was actually indicting the market-centric nature of what we call "art" -- not just in Albuquerque but everywhere -- for without the market infrastructure, and without the museum infrastructure that gives art legitimacy, it doesn't actually exist. Apparently.

And yet it does, no matter what. There was art in Albuquerque long before the erection and demolition of the Alvarado, though it went unrecognized as art until there was a market to give it legitimacy.

Yes, well.

I thought it was interesting that Traugott started his talk at the Art Museum in Santa Fe by asking the assembly what came to their minds when they heard the word "Albuquerque." Many simply drew a blank. None mentioned the river or the bosque or the Sandias, which is what came to my mind. Those who did come up with an image thought of the University, Intel, Breaking Bad, gangs and the airport (known locally as the Sunport). Most seemed to have no personal knowledge of the city itself. That's not too surprising in Santa Fe where insularity is almost a given. At least among a certain sort of folk.

When we mention where we live to people we meet or know in Santa Fe, they all seem to know of it and many consider it "local" -- part of Santa Fe's sphere of cultural influence, and that is something I find very interesting (it may help that two fairly recent governors came from this general area). But. There is no such recognition of commonality between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. They may as well be in different countries though only 60 miles apart.

I experienced the same thing in California, where San Francisco and Sacramento (only 90 miles apart) are practically on different continents and the ignorance and/or disinterest San Franciscans show for much of anything beyond their tip of a peninsula is stunning. There is no "there" beyond the Bay Bridge, the ick overriding all else.

Of course, Manhattanites are that way about anyplace beyond their tight, right little island, as Britons are about their island, and so it goes.

We live essentially equidistant  between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and we are frequently in one or the other city. But I have to say, we're very glad to return home out in the country here, where things are much calmer, at least most of the time, the air is sparkling (most of the time), there are wide open spaces all around, and nature has free rein.

The thing about our area, though, is that there are neither curios nor art of any kind. Our house is filled with paintings, and some of the ricos around here have some fine art in their homes, but it is by no means usual or typical. There are no galleries or curio shops, however, and certainly no museum of art! There is no artist colony around here, either, though both Galisteo and Mountainair, both of them closer than Santa Fe, host quite active artist communities.

As for Albuquerque? We had a wonderful time last night at the Yjastros flamenco performance at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Once again, blame UNM... Olé!

UPDATE: Ordinarily, I avoid Facebook like the plague that it is, but I was looking up something to do with Yjastros Flamenco (they do Tablao from time to time) and there was a link to a Facebook site called "Inhabitants of Burque" with lots -- I mean lots -- of local color, and I clicked on the photo album and was transported for a time... it's "all bad." If you can stand to click a link to Facebook, have fun!

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