IN TERRI ROLLAND'S PAINTINGS, familiar features are pared back to their essential elements. A pale green shape resembles an adobe wall against a black background, while a blue rectangle cutout becomes a door open to the sky. A brown mesa-like feature, cut with a pale blue square, lies on a yellow background. By limiting the canvases to just three colors and some basic geometric figures, she tries to show not what we see so much as what we feel, like the sense of energy and possibility in the line where sky meets land.
Her latest paintings have been pulled into the constellation of exhibitions that is Desierto Mountain Time, a series of museum and gallery shows that dig into issues critical to desert (desierto in Spanish) and high plains communities. The exhibitions, which model what could become a remarkable means of artistic collaboration, stretch across five southwestern states and two countries, including at the Roswell Museum, where Rolland’s work went up last fall. She’s still thinking through her place among an array of artists engaging with concerns central to life in the Southwest: how we think about ourselves and our history, the changing faces of the people who live here, and the monumental shifts of the place itself.
“I have almost always struggled with the fact that I’m an abstract painter,” Rolland says on a video tour of her latest work. “I’ve always been a very political person, but I’m unable to make political art, and I came to an acceptance that my work must be the work it must be.”
Looking at her matte canvases, which absorb rather than reflect light, and their sense of spaciousness, she adds, “But I see what I have done in this work is kind of reflective of a lot of my political points of view, which is be receptive, listen, sit back.”
Her work also sparks questions: What if the sky were yellow? What would that mean about how well we’ve stayed in touch with this place we call home, and the decisions we’ve made for its care? As a 2021 participant in the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program, she’s enjoyed conversations with the other resident artists—video artist Marie Alarcón and muralist, printmaker, and sculptor Eric J. Garcia, both of whom overtly dive into political material—as a backdrop to her recent work.
These insights and connections, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, lie at the core of Desierto Mountain Time.Visitors to the exhibitions can expect works that tangle with issues of the moment: the border, identity politics, cultural histories, and climate change. The pieces explore visual similarities across the region and illuminate differences across the same space.
Desierto Mountain Time arose out of a desire for connection. During the pandemic’s early months, Suzanne Sbarge, executive director of 516 Arts, in Albuquerque, began organizing video conference calls among curators and gallery staff throughout the region. These monthly meetings became a place to talk about how everyone was coping, and what they could work on while galleries and museums remained closed or ran at limited capacity.
“It was partly a way to support one another during this crazy time when we were all trying to figure out how to do our work, and what is the most important thing we can do to help, to survive, and to serve our communities,” Sbarge says.
They started talking about opportunities to collaborate and how the pandemic might reshape the future. Staffers soon realized that many planned exhibitions already brushed up against the same ideas.
“We really have similar missions and are trying to accomplish similar things,” says Marisa Sage, director of the University Art Museum at New Mexico State University. “That’s pretty beautiful, but it’s also pretty telling. Obviously, this region means a lot to us, and our communities mean a lot to us.”
The curators settled on a strategy of intertwining and amplifying. In the same way that networked antennae can broadcast farther into space than any one antenna alone, they could signal-boost for one another, drawing attention to the incredible contemporary art coming out of the Southwest.
A road trip through Desierto Mountain Time means catching Counter Mapping at 516 Arts, which opens with Val Britton’s 25-foot-tall installation Upper Air. Britton hung hundreds of hand-cut or laser-cut map forms, which dangle like clouds from the ceiling near the gallery entrance. The piece is poetic and reflective, Sbarge says, but also “kind of this spectacle, to see something that delicate and labor-intensive.” Another view of the multi-layered landscape appears at Counter Mapping in Mallery Quetawki's acrylic paintings. Quetawki, a Zuni Pueblo artist, blends her research on health impacts of abandoned uranium mines and the fossil fuel industry with Zuni symbols and cosmology.
In February, 516 opens Many Worlds Are Born, featuring contemporary commissions from artists using the Albuquerque Museum Photo Archives. Mixed-media collage artist Jeanna Penn’s Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West dives into Albuquerque’s South Broadway community from the 1940s to the 1960s, when it was home to many Black residents. Other ceramic, wood, and fabric works evoke Indigenous influences and Spanish colonial history.
The NMSU Art Museum and 516 both feature pieces by Taos-based artist Nikesha Breeze, whose commissioned works tap into personal ties with Blackdom, New Mexico’s first Black homesteading town, of which nothing remains but a historic marker on US 285 near Roswell. The cross-promotion of Breeze’s work is one example of how galleries and museums support working artists and build a sense of community that Sbarge hopes becomes a movement. Also at NMSU this spring, Relational Tectonics features northern New Mexico artists creating works set in bedroom scenes that consider the complexities of identity, disability, and privilege.
In Taos, the Harwood Museum of Art showcases 360-degree panoramic photographs from along the spine of the Rocky Mountains and quasi-time-lapse images by photographer Gus Foster. Debbie Long’s Light Ships opens in March with an immersive, site-specific piece that re-creates the night sky, and Willa, a 1970s RV converted into a chamber filled with yellow glass globules. Visitors climb inside and watch the light shift as the sun drifts down the horizon.
Elsewhere, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College hosts large-scale ceramic sculptures that evoke the Peruvian religious festival of Corpus Christi. MOCA Tucson showcases sculptures, photography, and drawings about the Sonoran Desert borderlands. At the Museo de Arte Ciudad Juárez, Victoria Vinamaragui’s Sustained Downfall draws out notions of suspended activity—and quarantine—in a sculpture of a chandelier.
“I think that people here are trying to figure out how, through the arts and through community activism, they can be part of some of these big, hopeful reckonings we have going on,” says Sage. “I don’t know anyone personally or within my community that isn’t trying to make connections.”
Perhaps separateness is an illusion, and interconnection is the reality.
“The expression and the artistic spirit really bring us together through all kinds of hardship and isolation and separation,” Sbarge says. “It’s like air and wind. It doesn’t know borders or confines.”
Traversing the Constellation
Opportunities to tune in and get out to learn more about Desierto Mountain Time stretch through 2022.
Details on Desierto Mountain Time’s growing list of exhibitions and events can be found on their website.
Catch up on the latest conversations about Desierto on Tilt Podcast: Shifting Perspectives on Complex Issues, produced by the Santa Fe Art Institute.
Attend “Sites of Resistance,” a panel discussion on intersections between diasporic communities, cultures, and places, and art as a tool for activism, with artists Marie Alarcón, Nikesha Breeze, and Nansi Guevara. February 19, 1–3 p.m., at the Santa Fe Art Institute.