The LGBTQ+ creatives of Out West made their mark on southwestern art.
BY JENNIFER LEVIN Jennifer Levin is a freelance communications professional and an arts and culture writer in Santa Fe.
Santa Fe New Mexican
ART EAT & DRINK
The LGBTQ+ creatives of Out West made their mark on southwestern art. Maybe it was the crimson light on the Sangre de Cristos at sunset. Or the precise shade of gold that aspen leaves turn in October. Maybe it was the mere idea of vast open space in which to create, to breathe free. But after train travel came to the Southwest in the late 1800s, something about the region attracted Anglo artists from the East Coast, newcomers who formed communities and relationships away from the prying eyes back home. In the six decades before the Stonewall Uprising in New York City brought a notable national reckoning with LGBTQ+ rights, gay, lesbian, and queer artists found a crucial open-mindedness in New Mexico — and became major players in the era’s art movements. A New Mexico Museum of Art exhibition, Out West: Gay and Lesbian Artists in the Southwest 1900–1969, explores these artists individually and as a group. “If I installed the show without text, people would just think they were seeing a survey of early 20th-century southwestern art. There isn’t a lot that would speak to gender identity or sexuality in the work,” says Christian Waguespack, New Mexico Museum of Art head of curatorial affairs and curator of 20th-century art. Out West includes paintings, drawings, photography, and ceramics by such household names as Will Shuster, Laura Gilpin, Marsden Hartley, El Paso–based Manuel Gregorio Acosta, and R.C. Gorman, a Navajo artist originally from Chinle, Arizona, who in Taos opened what’s thought to be the country’s first Native American–owned art gallery. Waguespack also included pieces by Agnes Martin that predate her well-known grid work. “She didn’t think of herself as an abstract expressionist, but these are just as good as anything coming out of this period from members of this circle,” he says. “Even though it’s something she wouldn’t pat herself on the back for, I think we should.” Works depicting the Penitente Brotherhood, a Catholic fraternal order known for its secrecy, repeat through the exhibition. The group became subject matter for Hartley in 1919, Russell Cheney a decade later, and Cady Wells in the 1930s and during his darker, more interior postWWII period. “None of them were from Catholic backgrounds, so there was a little bit of exoticism at work, but I could see how an all-male group that met in private and was deeply focused on the concept of internalized guilt could speak to a gay man,” says Waguespack. Most of the LGBTQ+ artists featured in the exhibition came from afar to find the freedom to create; Waguespack didn’t find many homegrown and out gay and lesbian artists to include. But he did hang photographs of We’wha, a two-spirit Zuni potter and weaver who in 1885 traveled to Washington, D.C., where they mingled with Washington’s elite and met with President Grover Cleveland at the White House. “We’wha lived a little bit before the dates of the show, but it’s important to note that people here had different takes on gender and sexuality that long predate these artists coming out here and trying to find themselves.”