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Rokoko exhibit delves below the ‘Sur (face)’


Artist Karen Conley has been working on a large mermaid, a sculpture that is the centerpiece of an exhibit by Conley and Saul Ramirez exploring what lies beneath the “Sur (face),” opening Jan. 4 at Rokoko Gallery.

Conley creates two lines of artwork, one for more traditional shows – sumptuous fruit and lovely flowers. The other is often disturbing – masks and faces that comprise this show.

“I have sort of this dark side,” Conley said. “Dark, but also funny. So, at first you will say, ‘Oh my God, this is hilarious,’ but a lot of my work is about surface tension and layers and family relationships and false narratives. I do a lot of work with masks, too. I feel like masks are truer than our face, like we are trying to hide something. But sometimes those masks betray who we really are. And that’s kind of my aesthetic, where I work from.”

Conley retired from the Army in 2014 after serving as a logistics officer and a public affairs officer. While deployed in Somalia, she, some soldiers “and some gals in the Navy” founded a school teaching English.

“All the Somalis that worked for us wanted to go to America, so they wanted to learn English,” she said.

Later, she turned to art – a natural progression; she liked art as a child and has an aunt who is a watercolorist in Pennsylvania and an artistically talented twin sister.

“I was hoping to be a fine-art photographer,” Conley said. “But then I started painting and doing other fun stuff. I still photograph once in a while; I go out and do night shoots with a group of friends. But I’m just happier making a mess with paint.”

She sometimes gets too attached to her pieces. She sold a painting last summer and is still mourning its absence.

“I don’t like to sell work, it’s hard,” Conley said. “In school we were told you have to learn to lose the preciousness of your work. Some in Rokoko won’t be for sale.”

Her pieces at Rokoko – for sale or not – include self-portraits, twins, masks and a series of drawings and photographs titled “Moon Man,” which depicts Conley’s father’s progression through life.  

“I felt like my dad never really had a strong voice for himself because he came from a really strong family of men who were hunters and everything, and that just wasn’t what he was about,” Conley said.

“You know, doing these manly things that kind of were required in that time period for men to be. I don’t really think he felt like he fit in sometimes. He was so friendly, but he didn’t really relate to others that well.”

Conley’s love of art extends beyond her own work. She serves as president of Picacho Hills Artists, teaches workshops as the volunteer educational coordinator at the New Mexico State University Arts Museum, is involved with the Doña Ana Arts Council, and organizes pop-up events like the recent show of 70 artists at Bank of the West.

“My sisters call me the little general,” she said. “I’m always organizing everything. You don’t think about the elements of art – content and line and color and shading – [but] I have a knack of looking at a whole bunch of different stuff and seeing how it could come together.”

A reception for “Sur(face)” is 4-7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, at Rokoko, 1785 Avenida de Mercado in Mesilla. The gallery is normally open noon-5 p.m. Saturdays. Call 575-522-5553.

Elva K. Österreich may be reached at elva@lascrucesbulletin.com.