NEED TO KNOW

SITE Santa Fe: 20th Anniversary Three-Part Exhibition Series

The spring installment, featuring Simpson’s Alter, ends May 31. The fall installment includes art by Santa Fe artist Terry Allen (read our November 2013 profile here: mynm.us/terryallen). Find out more, including details on the July 16 gala and benefit auction, on the museum website. (505) 989-1199; sitesantafe.org


SITE Santa Fe and Rose B. Simpson grew up together. Simpson was 11 when the award-winning contemporary art museum opened in the downtown Railyard District. In the 20 years since, she’s become one of the most exciting and thoughtful artists of her generation, and the museum has become one of a handful of leaders in the global contemporary art world. The relationship has been tight. Simpson participated in SITE’s Young Curators show in 2000 and in the 2008 biennial, Lucky Number Seven. Now, in the first of the institution’s 20th-anniversary series of three exhibitions, she’s back with a new commissioned installation called Alter: two eight-foot-tall mixed-media figures standing across from each other, alone in an otherwise empty gallery room.



Accompanying the SITE celebrations are videos featuring artists, founders, curators, and others answering questions about the impact and importance of SITE (sitesantafe.org/20-questions). We sat down with the artist at a coffee shop across the street from the Santa Fe Indian School, where she went to high school, to ask some of the same questions.



WHAT’S SO IMPORTANT ABOUT CONTEMPORARY ART?

It offers the challenge of innovation. I think that the only thing that is going to save us— and by “us” I mean the world—is if we find ways to strengthen our innovation muscle. Also, unlike most other artistic traditions, contemporary art values—demands—a sense of obscurity. It doesn’t tell you what you are looking at. And the benefits of that are huge. Most artistic traditions are exclusive—they are built around a certain way of knowing and a way of looking. Contemporary art is inclusive. It allows everyone to bring their own selves into the work, to understand their world through the art. To be successful as a contemporary artist, you have to create the opportunity for things to be misunderstood, or maybe differently or newly understood.



WHAT’S BEEN THE ROLE OF PLACE IN YOUR WORK?

I think that the mantra of my childhood was “You can.” We grew our own food. My mother [Roxanne Swentzell] would sell a sculpture, she’d buy supplies, and eventually she built us a two-story adobe house. It may also have something to do with the matriarchal nature of our Santa Clara Pueblo society. I was just expected to get stuff done. And another part is a sense of belonging. You understand growing up that you are a cog, a bolt in the machine. My work is not just my own personal story but that of my community. It means that I’ve mastered the art of stepping on toes just enough. Northern New Mexico is a collection of lots of different cultures, and because there’s the Santa Clara part of me, the Anglo part of me, the hippie part of me, the fact that I’m into badass cars, that I’ve hung out with the Rasta, I feel that I can push a little until I get something that’s worth saying. It’s like throwing all these cultures into a blender and hitting “purée.” That’s me.



IN THE SITE VIDEO, YOU TALK ABOUT THE MUSEUM’S ROOTS AND THE NEED TO REACH OUT. HOW DO YOU ENVISION THAT HAPPENING?

Although I grew up in an artistic family and we had friends who were part of the “art in America” conversation, it wasn’t until I spent some time at SITE that I understood the real size of that conversation. Everything got bigger. And I started to really appreciate the power of art to bridge cultures.



What makes SITE unique right now is the intersection of its geography and its reputation. It can build a dialogue between all these cultures that have been unable to be heard. For years they’ve been bringing outsiders in—now they’ve got a chance to bring the insiders out. [Read about SITE’s biennial, which addressed concerns of inclusion and local connection, here: mynm.us/artwithoutborders.]



WHAT IS IT LIKE DOING THE SORT OF WORK YOU DO IN A TOWN LIKE SANTA FE?

I was never anonymous. I discovered early on that I had to be thoughtfully reactionary. If I was going to go against some norm, I had better be able to say why. The upside of that is that when I did put my heart out there, I was all in. It was a powerful sort of vulnerability. It forced me to build a strong self-acceptance muscle to go along with my innovation muscle! One of the reasons I went to RISD [Simpson earned an MFA in ceramics at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2011] was to see if anonymity was useful for the sort of work I want to do. “No” was the answer. The relationships I have here are too important.



WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO CREATE ALTER AS YOUR WORK FOR THE ANNIVERSARY SHOW?

It was going to be Altar, a bigger, more complicated work, but the relationships I had with collaborators didn’t work out, and so I altered it to make the piece about that. I ended up creating these two characters relating to one another. They represent not only relationships between people, but our relationship to the world, and also my relationship with myself. Relationships are what is sacred. They are an altar. 



ANY CHILDHOOD MEMORIES OF SITE?

Yes! Dad would pick me up on Fridays from school and we’d go. A lot. SITE and Warehouse 21 were where things really got going for me. They gave me a chance to experience creative freedom and energy in different ways. And then, I was in the SITE Young Curators show in my last year of high school.



WHAT INFLUENCE HAS SITE HAD ON YOU?

The work I’ve seen at SITE has forced me again and again to ask the question “Why?” I want to understand why artists are doing the work they’re doing. It’s allowed me to explore my own intentions. Some of the most powerful stuff I’ve seen there is super simple, which is also a great lesson. I definitely consider SITE one of my institutional parents. It nurtured me, helped me grow, and as a result my goal is not just to change the art world, but to change the whole world.