- A Contested Art: Modernism and Mestizaje in New Mexico by Stephanie Lewthwaite
By Stephanie Lewthwaite. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015. ix + 269 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95 cloth.
When describing art by nonwhite artists, mainstream art critics, dealers, and curators reveal more about themselves than the work itself. Nowhere is this observation more accurate than New Mexico, where Anglo art patrons and migratory artists value the primitive, folk, and colonial arts as well as the enchanting landscape. Their idealized and nostalgic understanding of Hispano artists made modernist aesthetics and hybrid sensibilities invisible if not untenable in the creative productions of New Mexicans. Anglo art patrons and artists such as Georgia O'Keefe, who celebrated the uninhabited landscape of New Mexico, narrowly perceived Hispano artists, particularly women, as authentic colonial descendants untouched by modernity. A Contested Art skillfully exposes and challenges how the "Spanish colonial paradigm" creates narrow interpretations of Hispano artists and places them outside of modernism (41).
Stephanie Lewthwaite reframes modernism, making this book required reading in art history. She observes that Hispano artists respond to the social and economic pressures of modernism as well as the Anglo art patronage system. These responses produce an alternative modernism, or "mestizo modernism" (16). It is characterized by hybridity, indigeneity, and transnational visual idioms. More importantly, Lewthwaite demonstrates how Hispano artists exceed the boundaries of multiple aesthetic categories. She cogently argues that Hispano modernist artists experiment through tradition.
The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 provides the historical and conceptual context that informs revivalist movements, the Anglo art patronage system, and market demands for Hispano artists of the twentieth century. Part 2 is a recovery and reinterpretation of the innovation and experimentation of Hispano artists, such as sculptor Patrocinio Barela, photographer John Candelario, and painters Edward Chávez and Margaret Herrera Chávez. For example, Lewthwaite examines the stylistic experimentation of Barela and suggests that his distorted heads and figures are abstract art, extending "the santero aesthetic beyond the traditional religious bulto" (98). Candelario's photography, unlike his Anglo contemporaries, represents Native American human activity rather than empty landscapes. The navigation of "cultural loss, conflict and change" (150) also informs the work of Margaret Herrera Chávez and Edward Chávez. Their work conveys critical mestizaje, a generative condition of "belonging and unbelonging" (169), which also allows the artists to blend multiple cultural traditions and artist networks. In addition to these four principal artists, Lewthwaite places more than twenty other Hispano artists within the aesthetic tradition of American and Latin American modernism, critically observing the prevailing myths about tradition, authenticity, and culture.