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Virgil Ortiz's installation

The “Making” of Albuquerque

Standing outside the installation “Agoojiganan,” I watch as two other visitors enter the 8-by-12-foot mass of dangling white strings and all but disappear. The effect is disorienting, like standing outside a fog, to have them only three feet away and perfectly audible while their shapes dematerialize. University of New Mexico architecture students Donavan Boone and Parker Sprague made the piece for an assignment that prompted them to identify “an unused, overlooked or forgotten space” at George Pearl Hall and make it visible again.

I’m witnessing “Agoojiganan” in its new habitat, in the back gallery of Albuquerque’s 516 Arts, where it hangs as part of the exhibition “From the Ground Up: Design Here + Now.” “From the Ground Up” is, in turn, part of On the Map: Unfolding Albuquerque Art + Design, a collaboration of about 20 Duke City organizations, as well as the City of Albuquerque and the mayor’s office, in an attempt to draw attention to the city as a cultural hub. Though 516 puts particular emphasis on Albuquerque as a design hub, its program proffers a “sampling” of regional outputs in art, design and architecture, seemingly aiming to test the elasticity of these categories; thus the collection intermingles 3-D-printed housewares and practical handmade textiles with architectural interventions and Indigenous futurisms. However, the field becomes so wide that the selections suggest few productive intersections between them; the designation “design here + now” becomes so inclusive that 516 shifts from contemporary art space to boutique, selling not only many of the items on the walls and shelves, but also the idea of Albuquerque as a “creative city” that merits investment.

With the ascendency of the creative economy scheme over the last decade, a broad selection of what we might consider art serves an everyday function in maintaining a narrative of cultural relevance and the potential for economic revitalization. Artists become repackaged as “makers” of precious, consumable goods, but — more importantly — art draws investors to a space that has been overlooked or forgotten and gives policymakers cred with local progressives. Art and artists are endowed with the power and responsibility of putting places like Albuquerque “on the map.” In this context, “From the Ground Up” is an attempt at the making of Albuquerque; that is, at positioning it as a home for makers.

The strictly functional and decorative works in the exhibition crawl up the wall of the front room like some kind of mercantile store in which one points to a desired item and a clerk goes to get it. Having instinctively imagined a place in my home for Thomas Tomlinson’s “Hall of Mirrors” and having wondered if my kids could appreciate Emi Ozawa’s “Cardboard Kinetic Models” without destroying them, I decided to return later.

In the middle gallery space below the loft, I came upon Virgil Ortiz’s “Aeronauts Cuda + Stu | Pilots of the Survivorship Armada | Pueblo Revolt 2181.” It consists of two fiberglass mannequins dressed as ultramodern pilots, surrounded by photographs of a variously costumed, occasionally bare-chested model. As Ortiz is a fashion designer, the focus of the display is on his couture — but as couture, the designs also participate in a narrative, which he has spelled out for us in a sort of diorama. I overheard a visitor explain to his two female companions that the work has something to do with “S&M”; considering the centuries of viewers trained to see Native flesh as sexualized and suffering, it was an unsurprising evaluation. However, the figures are clearly survivors and warriors. Ortiz’s placement of the Pueblo Revolt in 2181 doesn’t just move the quashed rebellion 500 years forward, but also realizes Native resistance as an ongoing struggle rooted in the body. The piece makes a startling and eerie claim to the American department-store display window, and there is nothing in the exhibition like it.

In fact, there’s nothing in the exhibition like anything else in it. I think about this as I enter “Agoojiganan.” The word “agoojiganan” is the plural of agoojigan, Ojibwe for “something hung,” like a clothesline, but it also means something used to hang, like a hanger. Inside, I appreciate the subtlety and simplicity of the piece — the illusion created by the materials — while remaining stuck on the implication, embedded in the original assignment, that empty space is wasted space.

In the context of “From the Ground Up,” I consider ways in which art and design serve particular agendas. On the Map is effectively a PR campaign for the City of Albuquerque, as well as a shield for a mayor who has denied the scourge of police violence even in the face of a Department of Justice mandate to do something about it. As the organizing partner one of the leaders of the initiative, 516 embodies the values of On the Map, so even as “From the Ground Up” establishes that a number of makers do live here, it also expresses the anxious determination that we not only see this, but understand that it is somehow relevant. I don’t know if the message is one of wide cultural significance or of particular significance. In other words, what does “From the Ground Up” communicate about Albuquerque art and design?

In the program, guest co-curator Katya Crawford writes that Albuquerque commands a committed, “visionary” group of makers representing new paradigms and “technology engaged in rich dialogue with history and place.” History and place are words we hear often in New Mexico, but we don’t often talk about what they mean, how they relate to us or what they have to do with “here + now.” Artists in Albuquerque are doing this work; I saw some of it in “From the Ground Up,” such as “White Cubes Installation,” which consists of white viewing boxes containing images of realized and conceptual designs by local architects. Dangling in the back of the loft, the collection of boxes buries what could be a discussion on the possibilities for Albuquerque’s built environment in promotional artspeak, the description calling for “a rich dialogue between materiality, technology, form and space.” Like much of the exhibition, “White Cubes Installation” puts a group of visionaries in a room together and fails to make them talk to one another.

This is not to say that the work is bad. The work is mostly very good, like Sara Stewart’s “Landscapes of the Senses,” a series of graphite and/or charcoal drawings that conceptualize the affect of built environments. On the functional side, Justine Humble and David Gallegos’ “Coffee Table 1” imagines its own futurity through the artists’ use of alder and maple, which will age differently. Nonetheless, the exhibition’s effort to test the elasticity of the formal categories becomes an idle attempt to highlight what 516 considers to be the best work — in Executive Director Suzanne Sbarge’s words, “the depth, breadth and ingenuity of Albuquerque’s contemporary art, design and architecture.” This might explain why there was so little work to behold, especially in the “design” category. Why, for example, was only one jewelry-maker represented? Why only two furniture makers/teams? Why did 516 dedicate the better part of the loft to student landscape concepts? The answer to these questions can only be that this was a city-sponsored “showcase.”

With little more than a “Made in Albuquerque” label holding the work together and the notion of preciousness instilled by grouping design with art, the exhibition slides from boutique into museum gift shop, with shoppers easing between conversations on the merits of the not-for-sale conceptual work to debating which color lamp will go best in the den. It’s a use of space that might fulfill the requirements of the assignment that produced “Agoojiganan,” but with almost the opposite effect. One can take an object home by purchasing it, but the space itself becomes forgettable.

“From the Ground Up: Design Here + Now” is open through April 11 at 516 Arts in downtown Albuquerque.

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