Santa Fe

Erika Wanenmacher

Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe

As the Center for Contemporary Arts crumbled around her, Erika Wanenmacher self-produced a twenty-year midcareer survey of her openhearted sculptures. While most artists would have folded their tents, especially after the entire staff of CCA was dismissed during the run of the exhibition, Wanenmacher’s show not only went on, but was one of CCA’s most well-attended visual art exhibitions in its seventeen-year history. Appropriately, Wanenmacher’s The Boat, 1976–77—a four-foot-long, three-dimensional, open-air wooden craft outfitted with an extra-large red centerboard—was the oldest piece on view. The boat is one of Wanenmacher’s recurring images, as are self-portraits, blue eyeballs, articulated hands, thumping hearts, oversized insects, coiling snakes, chunky flames, empty chairs, big guys . . . and big dogs. All of this work is labor intensive, mostly carved and painted wooden figures, which inhabited the galleries with a blend of workaday substantiality and offbeat mystical schemes.

Wanenmacher first visited New Mexico during the mid ’70s en route from the Kansas City Art Institute to the Women’s Building in Los Angeles. After being haunted by dreams of the place, she returned to make twenty years’ worth of sculptures with a cheerful rock-’n’-roll folk-punk camaraderie. All of Wanenmacher’s works feel like they have job descriptions; and for each the subtext is “more is more.” This retrospective showed the artist building increasingly specific purposes into her pieces. For example, The Boat has painted lettering of wide-ranging goodwill that winds around the inside; a series of six oil-painted and varnished triangular panels, Power Panels, 1987, emphasizes heart, body, and heat as much as mind; Remember Flying, 1992, is a traveling case for humans who have forgotten their wings; and Head, Heart, Hands, 1995, is a miniature self-portrait made by the artist after she finished a Charles Ray commission for his own little-man-in-a-bottle. In Wanenmacher’s self-portrait lightning bolts strike her head, heart, and hands. It is an object made to give her career a burst of energy . . . and it seems to be working.

A few years ago in the local Santa Fe newspaper, a reviewer described Wanenmacher as a “green dominatrix,” succinctly capturing her oddly convincing optimism and persistence. Trinity Site Flea Market, 1995, a tableau of objects laid out on a velvet quilt, is loaded with atomic humor that easily slips beneath most viewer’s good-taste censors. Santa Fe, after all, is a town where Native Americans still sell their wares kneeling before the well-heeled tourist. Wanenmacher’s blanket of goodies displays a faux-Mimbres pot with stylized mush-room cloud, a leather bowling bag with a hand-tooled mushroom cloud, and Trinity coffee mugs, each with a silk-screened mushroom cloud, tongue-in-cheek references to former nuclear test sites in the area. It also displays a Datura leaf, vintage postcards, and a rodent in a lab jar titled Rat Glovebox, 1996—an eloquent little figure-in-a-bubble wearing a radiation badge necklace whose only contact with the outside world is through rat-sized rubber gloves.

The show is documented by a newsprint ’zine with writings by the artist and poet friends. The ’zine carries the warning: “I like to think of these publications—the zines I make for shows—as a combination art catalog, punk zine, and liner notes (Children ask your parents about liner notes. Parents ask your children about punk zines.)” Ultimately, Wanenmacher turned the dire circumstances of this show, and her residence in the overall kitschy atmosphere of a conservative tourist town, into a strength. Through do-it-yourself resourcefulness, Wanenmacher seems to have found a confident stride that is nimble, brash, good-humored, and always well-intentioned.

MaLin Wilson