New Mexico Vernacular

Usually I reserve the first Monday of the month for Printmakers You Should Know, but today we'll be taking a look at the latest RMAC exhibit, New Mexico Vernacular: Architectural Portraits by Robert Christensen.

Robert Christensen, Diamond Auto Parts, Roswell, NM, 2000, N 33° 20.130' W 104° 30.372'. Collection of the artist.

To Belen-based photographer Robert Christensen, the most compelling architectural features in New Mexico are its humble ones, the vernacular coffee houses, gas stations, and other structures that motorists often pass, but seldom stop to consider more closely. Christensen finds that these unassuming buildings resonate with meaning, becoming rich repositories for personal and regional histories. Photographed in black-and-white, his images invite us to contemplate not only the weathered beauty of American indigenous architecture, but also its uncertain future as these structures gradually disappear from our ever-changing cultural landscape. 

Some views from the RMAC installation in Spring River Gallery.

Christensen has received significant critical acclaim in recent years. His work was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum in 2013-2014, which the artist also donated to the collection. New Mexico Magazine also highlighted his photography in its 2013 article “Robert Christensen’s Diamonds in the Rough,” and New Mexico PBS explored his work in a documentary. With their frank, straightforward depictions, Christensen’s photographs resonate strongly with viewers.

Let's take a closer look at some of these images:

Robert Christensen, Sam Glass Barber Shop, Dexter, NM, 1977, N 33° 11.829' W 104° 22.255'. Collection of the artist.

Robert Christensen, Louie's, Cleveland, NM, 1977, N 35° 59.542' W 105° 22.193'. Collection of the artist.

Robert Christensen, Charlie’s Grocery, Albuquerque, NM, 1977. Collection of the artist.
Over time, Christensen has learned the personal stories behind many of the buildings he has photographed, exposing the humanity infused in their wooden beams and plaster walls. One example is Charlie’s Grocery Store in Albuquerque, seen in the picture above. Built in the 1880s, this structure initially led a rambunctious life, serving as a saloon and dancehall. After Charlie Gonzales, a descendant of the family that constructed the saloon, inherited the building, he turned it into a grocery store that remained open for over forty years. In the 1980s, Charlie’s granddaughter, Benita Villanueva, with her husband Vincent, transformed the building again when she renovated it into a private home and office. The varied functions of this building, spanning more than a century, reflect the changing needs of the family that erected it. 

Robert Christensen, 421-1/2 South First St., Belen, NM, 1998, N 34° 39.313' W 106° 46.154'. Collection of the artist.
Other structures speak to broader technological and cultural changes, as is reflected in the photograph of a mother-in-law cottage at 421-1/2 N. First St. in Belen. The home featured in this scene was initially built in the nineteenth century as a railroad ice car, then later converted into a domestic structure. Constructed of solid oak, the car predated conventional refrigeration. According to Christensen, a man by the name of Holguin had bought this building, along with three other houses and a city block of land, before the turn of the twentieth century. Paying a total of $500 for the property, Holguin would have his young daughters don their finest attire once a month and trek to the local bank to deposit the $3.00 payment, a family ritual instilled with a pervading sense of honor and solemnity. 

Robert Christensen, Morada,Tomé, NM, 2013, N 34° 44.249' W 106° 43.700'. Collection of the artist.
These anecdotes highlight the fluctuating nature of New Mexico’s cultural landscapes. While historical architecture may seem to project an aura of timelessness, it is usually anything but stagnant. Buildings are erected, adapted, and in many cases, demolished as they adjust to changing communities. Christensen himself has observed that many of New Mexico’s vernacular structures are being replaced with more modernized buildings, and his own photographic wanderings have diminished as a result of their gradual disappearance. Despite the future uncertainty of these indigenous structures, Christensen remains drawn to their underlying humanity, a passion that he eloquently articulates through his compositions. Often photographed frontally, these architectural photographs function first and foremost as portraits rather than as simple documentation, revealing the character and personalities of the people who embody the  history of New Mexico. Christensen likes to say that he can feel these places looking back at him, and when we see the evocative visages of the buildings he depicts, we can also sense detect the weathered faces of our continually unfolding history. 
New Mexico Vernacular is open through May 29, 2016, so if you're in town, be sure to check it out.