One of my favorite exhibits at the Albuquerque Museum (during last week’s visit) was a showing of Robert Christensen’s photos, “Vernacular Architecture of New Mexico”, a really marvelous collection of B/W shots of a variety of buildings where they sit (sometimes lonely, sometimes abandoned, sometimes waiting for the next busy moment) in the physical and social landscape of New Mexico. Christensen’s photos combine the stark and the charming in equal measure (much like the desert itself), and the experience of viewing the photos is enhanced by the opportunity that the exhibit provides for adventurous visitors to hop in the car and go to see the original buildings. As a sort of accidental anthropological study, Christensen’s photos highlight the distinctive features of the New Mexican vernacular: low buildings, close-tumbled, often stucco/adobe-covered, their decor featuring Southwestern or natural themes, relatively colorless even in a black-and-white shot, a few with the common local feature of low walls and low roofs and iron gates (as if one needed to create small, snug spaces in contrast to the infinitude of the desert landscape), and a sweet lot of wonky hand-painted signs. For people who like their ramshackle Americana with a Southwest flavor, Christensen’s photos (especially the shots of old bars and lounges) are a treat. The gradation of tones in the photos (vignette shading at the edges, soft but lively tone contrast, occasional grainy texture) puts the architecture at center stage but still makes the surrounding landscape a part of the show. This style of photography serves to highlight the closed-in feel of the buildings, the sense that they keep themselves to themselves (like the old gunfighter sitting alone at the far end of the bar…).
In the guestbook for the exhibit, it was clear that Christensen’s images had made a good impression on their audience. Guestbooks at art exhibits are a funny thing — the site of a certain kind of tension. What is a person supposed to say? On the one hand, it seems like it ought to be enough just to thank the artist, or to sign in with a smile or a note that says where they’re from. On the other hand, one sometimes sees people taking the time to write at length about their impressions of the exhibit, including (on occasion) some mildly critical commentary. Mostly, writers in such books seem to want to be taken seriously, so that their praise is read as more than a merely perfunctory note marking their presence. This requires details — not simply a “thank you” or “it was lovely,” but also a set of specific comments on what one liked and why, and which pieces of the exhibit seemed most meaningful. The ones writing the comments represent themselves and comment on themselves as if they, too, were on exhibit and might be judged by their contributions to the book.
The question of how one ought to talk about art is also a part of this comment anxiety. While anyone may appreciate a photo, there are a host of class and education and experiential differences among audience members at formal exhibitions, and it can put a bit of pressure on a contributor to the book. No one wants to appear foolish or simple, and there is an unstated but obvious need to be thought well of by the artist (as well as anyone else) who might read these comments.
This makes it all the more wonderful to see a comment like the one at the top of the page I photographed here: “Well I Like It.” That comment, in its directness and simplicity, seems just as self-contained and low-walled as the buildings in the photographs. It is, like them, without pretense. It fits the space it occupies and stands out against the others. It has no point to make beyond itself, plainly printed and signed.
Stark and charming, in equal measure.