‘Water! What is it Good For?’ opens at NMSU Art Gallery Jan. 22
By Zak Hansen
For the Las Cruces Bulletin
New Mexico is no stranger to water issues.
The state just now seems to be exiting a punishing drought. For years, farmers have struggled to produce crops in the once-fertile Mesilla Valley, their annual water allotments dwindling to a trickle. The perennial debate over the Arizona Water Compact rages on. The bed of the Rio Grande remains cracked and dry, and the river itself creates a natural border between two countries whose complicated sociopolitical realities fuel heated political debates.
After the godsend of an aqueous monsoon season and record snowpack in Colorado and northern New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment seems relieved – for now – of its decade- long, record-setting drought, but New Mexico State University Art Gallery’s first exhibition of the spring 2016 season, “Water! What is it Good For?” could not be more timely.
This joint exhibition by artists Bethany Taylor and Brenda Perry asks viewers to “consider meaning and practices of sustainability, water rights, renewable natural resources and environmental consciousness” while grappling with the complex environmental issues those living in the Borderlands are all too familiar with, but whose impact reaches far beyond the region.
Working out of Florida, interdisciplinary artist and assistant professor at the University of Florida Bethany Taylor is familiar with the myriad issues surrounding water.
Raised in the Stockton Delta in northern California’s San Joaquin Valley, Taylor’s family has been involved for decades in farming, making water of particular note.
“Water issues, whether it be drought or flooding of the levees in this region of California, have always affected my family and been of interest to me,” Taylor said.
Moving south for college, Taylor began taking courses centered on California’s water rights and history, and “became fascinated by the complexity of the issue of water and its use as a commodity, particularly in urban desert cities, which do not always have an adequate natural water supply.”
Moving on to graduate school in Colorado, with drought conditions leading to devastating wildfires, Taylor became aware of the critical nature of the Colorado River Basin, supplying water to Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California and New Mexico, supporting tens of millions of people and an astonishing 15 percent of the U.S. food supply.
“Care in regards to the depletion and misuse of this and other water supplies in the Southwest is imperative,” she said.
Though she’s jumped coasts for Gainesville, Taylor said she takes keen interest in the legal rights surrounding how water is maintained, as well as the lasting mark pollution makes when preservation is “not in balance with industry, agricultural and urban needs,” especially considering future predictions indicate Florida may face widespread severe flooding in the coming years “while at the same time, places like New Mexico experience devastating drought.”
Taylor’s work for the UAG show, titled “Ravages Raveled,” includes three large wall installation tapestries, accompanied by two smaller ones, depicting the New Mexico landscape that, as they drape along the gallery walls, become unraveled, pooling at the floor, their lush turquoise blues and avocado greens fading to dusty earth tones and rusty redbrowns — a shrinking water table. These loose strands connect roughly to fiber-drawn figures — rattlesnakes, jackrabbits, armadillos, humans, skeletal in the string recreation — pinned to the walls.
The idea, Taylor said, “Is that the pristine New Mexico landscapes, full of life, will begin to depict drought scenarios and a wasteland of destruction to life and the ecosystem.”
On one end of this installation, a large tapestry depicts the Elephant Butte Reservoir in 1994; on the other end, the reservoir in 2013, its stark and dire drop in water storage clear and frightening.
“Despite the complexities involved and the reasons for drought in the region, I want the work, if anything, to encourage a mindful use of water. I want the negatively impactful human activities and dystopian imagery to be seen in the context and colors of the beautiful New Mexico landscape so that viewers will be moved to consider this changing landscape, and might take better care to preserve it through conservation or activism.”
Artist Brenda Perry is also acutely aware of the many challenges, aside from the obvious, posed by water. Born in Juarez and now living between El Paso and New York City, Perry “grew up witnessing the social disparities from both sides of the border that are shared by the same ecosystem, yet divided by a dry river – the Rio Grande,” she said in a biography, “undertaking the roles of researcher, airline pilot, amateur programmer and pseudo-scientist in her attempts to rebirth the dying river.”
For her work, Perry makes strides to finding “real and imaginary solutions” to the region’s lack of water, a response to the “cultural relationship with water and the local ecosystem with quixotic approaches to serious social concerns.”
One of Perry’s works, “Waiting for Rain,” a multimedia installation using photography and video, found the artist creating vessels from raw clay from the dry Rio Grande riverbed, then placing the ewers back into the river, in time dissolving back into their original environment. For her UAG piece, Perry covers the gallery floor with riverbed sand, a clay jarro centered in the sand, computer- generated rain projected in front of it.
Another, “Memory of Water,” invites viewers to sketch in the missing water in an image of the Rio Grande with a water brush, directly onto tiles formed from that same local- sourced clay.
“Relational Sustainability,” perhaps the most striking, “investigates weather and the significance of intentionality in humanity’s efforts to remediate pressing anthropogenic problems” like drought.
Suspended in midair in the gallery space, a lone cloud hangs above a small, square planter of rich, brown and speckled soil; by sending a Tweet — #releasetherain — from anywhere in the world, viewers trigger a water pump inside, dropping to the installed earth a burst of nourishing water, eventually yielding the tender tendrils of sunflower seedlings peeking up from the peat.
Zak Hansen can be reached at zak@lascrucesbulletin. com.