Look Both Ways

Collection stands at the intersection of traditional and contemporary culture

Date February 12, 2009 at 11:00 PM

Categories Communications


This week€™s column is the second in a four part series that highlights art collections in unexpected settings in and around Santa Fe.

You likely don€™t think of going to a casino resort to see art, but Buffalo Thunder houses one of the most impressive collections of pueblo art in the state. It is rare to find a collection like this €” a selection of works in which tradition and innovation are presented side by side, where older and younger voices speak multiple truths about Native American experience in contemporary America.

The excellence of this collection is due to the sharp and savvy eye of George Rivera, the governor of Pojoaque Pueblo. Rivera is an artist himself (the large, bronze cast figures, at the entrance and inside, are his), and his first€“hand experience as an educated, critically-thinking craftsman is what allowed him to know which works to choose, which artists to include, and which conceptual perspectives would best tell the full story of pueblo art€™s foundation and future.

Rivera received degrees from the Institute of American Indian Arts and the California College of Arts and Crafts. He also studied art at the Lacoste School of Arts in France where he was also an apprentice to a Japanese master sculptor. Returning to New Mexico, determined to revitalize pueblo art and culture, he spearheaded the Poeh Cultural Center and Museum, which includes working art studios and art classes. Buffalo Thunder, a collaboration with Hilton Hotels, is more than a business endeavor €” it is an excellent center for showcasing pueblo arts.

The vision for the collection is illustrated by Rivera€™s own painting, €œLook Both Ways,€ located in one of the hotel€™s smaller lobbies. A dancer in full dress stands in the center of a highway, the past behind him and the future before him. A fighter jet flies overhead. On the dancer€™s right, a coyote steps cautiously onto the asphalt, and on his left, a rabbit does the same. This intersection of traditional and contemporary pueblo life, of nature and €œprogress,€ is dangerous and exciting. Rivera is €œlooking both ways,€ at the intersection of traditional and contemporary pueblo culture, at the intersection of cultures, at the old and the new, at the beloved and the novel.

One of the strongest contemporary voices in the Buffalo Thunder collection is Rose Simpson, who was commissioned to create the design for an enormous stained glass work in the hotel lobby. Simpson€™s design, €œDancer Descending,€ is a riff on Marcel Duchamp€™s 1912 painting, €œNude Descending a Staircase.€ When Duchamp submitted the work in the 1912 Salon des Indépendants in Paris, the jurors were so offended that Duchamp was asked to withdraw the painting. When he submitted it for 1913 Armory Show in New York City, Americans were equally appalled, and the work was repeatedly parodied.

In his painting, Duchamp referenced new innovations in art (Cubism), photography (Muybridge€™s time-lapse images, in particular), and the work of scientists and philosophers who were redefining time and space. It is now considered a masterpiece.

In her monumental work, Simpson is comparing herself with Duchamp, an innovator and instigator who changed the direction of modern art and who, some argue, was the original conceptual artist. In Simpson€™s design, the descending figure is a corn maiden, moving and shifting through time and space. This particular image of the corn maiden, and Simpson as an artist, represent the movement of pueblo art and culture forward into the future. Simpson is positioning herself as a descendant of both pueblo art and European art. By fusing both traditions into one work, she eliminates any distinction between the two. Conceptually, this is brilliant, and visually, it is stunning.

In the casino, outside the poker room, are additional stained glass works by Michele Tapia-Browning. Each image is a giant poker card: a queen, a king and a jack. In each work, a figure of European royalty is mirrored by a figure of pueblo €œroyalty€: a queen and a corn maiden, a king and a chief, a jack and a pueblo warrior. Tapia-Browning makes each pairing so formally equal that a visitor might not even notice the differences. And this, of course, is why this work is also conceptually outstanding.

Jason Garcia€™s painted, ceramic tablets hang in the long hallway leading to the spa. His €œTewa Tales of Suspense€ are ironic and truthful comic book covers in which Native warriors are presented as powerful heroes. Nearby, additional painted tablets show corn maidens hanging out inside vintage convertibles or talking on cell phones.

Although not part of Buffalo Thunder€™s art collection, it is also worth visiting the Southwestern Association of Indian Arts€™ new commercial space just off the lobby. Occasional works, like Michelle Tapia-Browning€™s digital photographs, are just as conceptually impressive as the works hung on the hotel€™s walls. The store itself is as posh as those in Las Vegas€™ best and newest casino hotels, and the elite quality of presentation shifts the perception of pueblo art in the same way as Simpson€™s stained glass work does.

There are many more amazing contemporary works throughout the hotel€™s lobby, meeting rooms, and hallways €” too many to write about here. In addition, extraordinary examples of traditional pueblo arts are represented as well. The main attraction in the hotel lobby is a display of pottery that represents every pueblo in New Mexico and also one Dine and two Apache nations. Amongst this grouping, look for another work that €œlooks both ways,€ a pot by Diego Romero, €œDay of the Earth Pigs,€ on which Romero has painted cars driving on a road under which pueblo pots are buried. In other areas of the hotel, giant dream catchers hang over the escalators. And next to two small, contemporary figures, €œPunk-Rock Girl€ and the sweatshirt-wearing, pierced lipped €œPoet€ by Simpson, is a beautiful, more traditional pot, €œGaming Clowns,€ by Roxanne Swentzell.

Take the drive out to Buffalo Thunder on a Saturday afternoon. Accompany your visiting relatives there. Professors should take their students on a field trip. All of us should take note.

If You Go

WHAT: Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino
WHERE: 30 Buffalo Thunder Trail, U.S. 84/285 north of Santa Fe
CONTACT: buffalothunderresort.com
(505) 455-5555