Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Best Tears

In 1994 Mars and I went to the Taos, New Mexico Art Festival. We have the poster -- a print of an R.C. Gorman painting -- hanging next to the doorway of the room in which I am typing this.

Like much of this New Mexican artist's work the subject matter is a Native American woman -- frequently looking as if you had just come upon them. Each pose is unique. In this instance she is standing, facing the viewer with her left hand on her left hip, and wearing a sleeved garment decorated in maroon stripes on a purple and blue background. The hues are muted and bleed off into the background in several areas. The overall effect is one of softness. And the color combination, which could be quite jarring, is instead a gentle blending of the three colors, enhancing the fact the one of the colors is formed by the mixture of the other two.

The Art Festival was not the focal point of our visit. It was just something that we decided to do while we were there. Our main purpose was to do some trekking in the high desert country alternated every other day with urban hiking amidst the southwestern architecture -- the former with frequent breaks to hydrate and/or breathe and the latter with intermittent retail rest stops.

We spent the second half of our two-week trip in the Taos area. The Arts Festival was winding down when we came upon it in the gymnasium of the local high school.

Our basic rule for art purchases is that we both have to really like it. That was clearly the case with the poster. It was quite the opposite with some landscapes by a local artist that were a part of the show. The shapes and lines perfectly emulated the soft, layered, sine waves of the neighboring Sangre de Cristo Mountains. But the colors of the light were absolutely, totally, one hundred percent wrong -- well off the reality scale and then some. The purples, blues and reds of the skies were from the same family of colors as in the festival poster but their presentation was just too unsettlingly unworldly to have any basis in the parts of existence with which we were familiar. The poster was to be our only artistic acquisition at this festival.

A day or two later both Mars and I inexplicably awoke about an hour before sunrise. And spontaneously decided to take a drive north of town to the Rio Grand Gorge Bridge to watch the sunrise. We stood uninterrupted on the crown of U.S. Route 64 with our backs to the great rift, waiting for the first sign of sunrise over the Taos Mountains.

Because of the three thousand foot difference between the mountaintops and us the sun had risen well before we were able to see it. What we saw while we were waiting were the changes in the color of the sky and of the mountainsides. They slowly morphed from total blackness, to barely visible lines on a graph, to a kaleidoscopic display of the very same colors that we had so quickly discounted at the Taos Art Festival.

We shot many pictures but none of them came even close to portraying the vibrancy and assortment of hues that we were seeing with our eyes and minds.

Lessons learned: (1) just because you don't know about something, it doesn't mean that it's not true and (2) sometimes it takes a more than a carefully aimed camera to capture reality.

I had this in the back of my mind as Mars and I headed out recently for our "Arts in the Hudson Valley" Elderhostel. One of the topics of study on this intellectual junket was the work of the Hudson River School of Painting. We both are longtime fans of this style, particularly the portrayal of the natural light therein. Having never been to the area I surmised that, although these landscapes look quite realistic, they were in fact either amalgams of various locations or spruced up replicas of the subject matter. To me the light seemed not to be believable.

On the other hand we had been to Malta in the Mediterranean and seen the play of light in that sun-drenched, limestone-structured island. And having seen real life first, if memory serves as opposed to being self-serving, that illumination pretty much tracked with that which the H.R.S. artists showed in their own works set in that region. And there was our northern New Mexico experience.

This time we didn't see the light -- at least not one with the intensity and goldenness portrayed by Thomas Cole or Frederic Church.

Part of the reason could have been the rain and accompanying clouds that overshadowed about one and one half days of our five-day trek. And we were kept pretty busy at venues that did not necessarily show off the Hudson River area in its best light -- so to speak.

But I think the main reason was that we were looking for it. We were not searching for it at that sunrise in Taos. Nor when we went to Malta. I suspect that Thomas Cole was likewise taken unawares by his first encounter with the illumination of that region. And perhaps expressed some of this sense of surprise with artistic exaggeration.

As it says on another objet d'art that Mars and I acquired in Taos, "The best tears are unrehearsed."

(Taos Sunrise Collage by Dannielle Genovese)

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