Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Persistence of Vision (New Mexico)

Saturday night we drove to Santa Fe to enjoy a baroque concert. It might as well have been titled "Music You've Heard a Lot," as it included Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Bach's Concerto in D for Two Violins, and a concerto grosso by Handel, the precise title of which escapes me. Whether you know it or not, you've heard the first two a lot, and I, at least, have heard the Handel more than a few times.

Still, I had never heard any of these concerti performed live before, and the violin solos were very good, so I had a very pleasing evening.

The music was not terribly enhanced by the acoustics of the St. Francis Auditorium, but my viewing experience was. The auditorium is one of the great weird architectural oddities of the state, so wonderfully strange that you have to ask yourself at every moment, What were these people thinking?

The auditorium is part of the New Mexico Museum complex, built in 1917 in the Pueblo Revival style that is in these latter days not simply recommended for Santa Fe buildings, but required. The complex features a lovely courtyard with a strange concrete monolith fountain in the center, and murals of Depression Art set in cloisters around the court.

Most Depression Art murals, financed in the 1930s by FDR's Federal Art Project, seem to consist of arrangements of noble proletarians, farmers scattering grain or steelworkers poised with sledgehammers, all prepared to march off into the brave post-New Deal future.

Except in New Mexico. Depression Art in New Mexico is unlike art found anywhere. Check, for example, the deranged interpretations of the Book of Revelations blazing away in the stairwells of one of the buildings at Eastern New Mexico University.

In the courtyard, the murals feature a strange collision of Pueblo Indians with medieval alchemy. The Pueblos, in traditional garb, are enacting symbolic visions of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. There are also a couple murals of Pueblo Indians going about their daily tasks.

But it's the St. Francis auditorium that really rattles our consensus reality. It's a measure of how long I've lived in New Mexico that it didn't sink in at first just how odd the place really is.

For one thing, it's build in imitation of a church--- specifically San Esteban del Rey, the gigantic 17th Century Spanish mission church on the Acoma Reservation, built essentially by forced labor, with its bells paid for by enslaving a dozen or so of the pueblo's children to Mexico. San Esteban is built of mud, tons and tons of it, with the enormous tree trunks that hold up the roof (vigas) having been hauled twenty miles, and then somehow got up the mesa top to the site of the church.

Like the Acoma church, the roof of the auditorium is held up by enormous carved wooden vigas. There are two bell towers out front. There's a choir loft. There's an elaborate carved wooden screen, though it's not where you'd actually put a screen in a church--- it's off to one side of the altar area. The audience sits on wooden pews--- though very comfortable ones, with leather cushions.

And the murals on the walls are as religious as the setting. There's a mural of the Conversion of St. Francis, and another of the Renunciation of St. Claire--- or, as they're known locally, San Francisco and Santa Clara. There's a large, strange mural showing a monk, backed by a line of conquistadors, holding up an enormous crucifix before an Aztec leader supported by a line of elaborately-dressed warriors. There were other murals I didn't get a chance to examine carefully.

So you have to wonder what people were thinking when they put this oddity together. Did the architects just say, "Well, I've always wanted to build a giant mud church!" Did the muralists say to themselves, "Pueblo Indians and alchemy just go together!" or "I'm going to do my own strange take on religious art on the walls of a secular building that's been totally disguised as a church!"

Whatever they were thinking, they've created something mind-crunchingly odd that you won't see anywhere else on the planet.

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