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Harold Joe Waldrum: The Churches of Northern New Mexico

Introduction to the catalogue for a show at the Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, October 6 – 26, 1985.
Essay reproduced with the permission of William Peterson and Gerald Peters gallery.

Lonely and isolated, the high country of northern New Mexico would seem to pressure its tenacious inhabitants into a kind of brooding withdrawal. In the looming distances of its landscape, the clarity of light etches a quiet emptiness that surprises the soul with a vision of its own fragility and solitude. Although the broad open mesas, rugged canyons, and mountainous forests are breathtakingly beautiful, it is a land burdened by the covert adversities of a severe climate.

Much like Gauguin in Brittany, Harold Joe Waldrum has probed the character of this remote and secluded region, studying its traditional forms for the sources of its particular spirituality, and expressing these mysteries in an abstract language of bold planes and glowing color. He is not a landscape painter, but is seeking an outward reflection of something more deeply internal. Taking the mud-hewn moradas and churches of the region as his subject, he has found forms that give expression to the solitary glory and gravity of this extraordinary place.

Though his means are paints on canvas, his medium is more specifically light. When the angled light of the setting sun congeals in the dust-filled atmosphere of the high desert, it swells the sensuous shoulders and hip-shot buttresses of the local adobe chapels with a ruddy brilliance. In the next moment, the light recedes and the buildings close in on themselves, huddling against the sudden coolness of the thin night air and its humiliating vastness of stars. Waldrum has sensitively observed the respiration of the light and its changing moods at all times of day, from the raking clarity and razored shadows of morning to the baking dazzle that hammers flat the forms of midday and the close-valued afterglow that loses their definition in twilight melancholy.

To translate these moods of light in his paintings, Waldrum uses specially ground mineral pigments, like those originally prepared by the Old Masters. He binds these in a clear acrylic medium and frequently augments them with the otherworldly luminosity and liturgical weight of metallic powders. He also layers the paint on with successive coats of often contrasting colors so that the light actually seems to glow from within. By leaving thin traces of the undercolors as narrow outlines visibly bleeding at the edges of his broad masses, Waldrum gives an electric tension to the contours of his forms. The shapes shift and press against one another with tangible gravity, ultimately achieving a resolution like that of organ chords breathing the final cadence of a hymnal amen. Waldrum was also trained in music, and he knows how to orchestrate his colors and modulate his masses to bring about a fullness of compositional harmony.

Like icons, Waldrum’s images are not pictures in the strict sense. They are abstract evocations of a mysterious presence. But it is not a presence that will give itself over to being known; it is only felt. Even while responding to the curvaceous human softness of these hand-hewn buildings and the fleshlike warmth of their mud-plastered surfaces, one can’t help sensing that something elusive is being jealously withheld. By turns, they seem generous and full and then blankly reticent and guarded. Behind their seductive and lavishly colored facades, Waldrum’s churches are haunted. Each gaping, dark window or doorway is like the aperture of a cave, and an unfathomable darkness sulks behind their hulking protective walls. On Waldrum’s canvases, these humble buildings become as massive as Egyptian mastabas, as monumental and enduring as the rock-cut tombs of the Nile—and just as devastatingly empty.

Earlier, Waldrum’s work had been dominated by a brooding window shape—an abstract device of concentric rectangles that produced a series of frames within the frame of the canvas. Reminiscent of rough-carved window frames set into thick adobe walls, Waldrum’s windows surrounded a great yawning space in their center. In some paintings, this blank center darkened in mystery, while in others it opened onto a brilliant light. In either case, what at first might have seemed little more than a mechanical exercise in color relationships, instead took on a metaphysical resonance. And the emptiness and attraction of these open windows gave the viewer an existential shiver.

Sometime around 1981, Waldrum began photographing with a Polaroid SX-70 camera. He was fascinated with the similarity between the little square window of the SX-70 print and his own painterly concerns. His canvases had often been square, and he liked to stress the effect of equal pressures exerted on all sides of his compositions. Polaroids also have a fullness of color, a kind of swelling with light, that had long been a major feature of Waldrum’s paintings. He was soon studying the 3-by3-inch SX-70 surfaces for painterly possibilities and began to aim the camera with an eye to effective compositions. Photography became an activity like sketching.

It was then that he bagan focusing on the broad mud-plastered planes and crevice-like shadows of the adobe churches near Taos. Carefully observing the powers of cropping, he began to develop his singular abstract language. But his eye was moved by more than formal concerns as he worked with his Polaroid. He had photographed the little church at Cleveland, New Mexico, with its dangerously buckling walls. The next year he returned, but parts of the building had collapsed. These structures, which seem so enduring, are nevertheless vulnerable. Like the social cohesion that had built and maintained these unique buildings, adobe erodes. The paintings Waldrum was developing from his photographs became increasingly elegiac.

There are some 280 adobe churches—many of them dating from the 17th century—scattered among the Hispaic and Indian villages of northern New Mexico. Unique to the region, these earth-built chapels have provided a spiritual center for their isolated communities. But today, under the pressures of the modern world, many of these precious examples of architectural folk art are falling into decay. Waldrum has become something of an activist on their behalf, helping to spearhead an effort ot raise consciousness and funds to save this unique legacy before it is too late.

Traditionally, the adobe brick walls of these churches were given an outside coat of mud plaster, which requires frequent remudding. As the pace of modern life intensified and economic conditions became more strained, the parishioners no longer had time for this painstaking communal practice. In desperation, the walls were covered with a finish coat of cement, which was thought to be more permanent and maintenance-free. Unfortunately, small cracks develop in the cement, water seeps in, and the adobe bricks underneath are insidiously eroded. No longer internally sound, the walls will buckle and collapse.

Without economic recourse, the parishioners have often been forced to abandon their beloved churches. Understandably mistrustful of outside assistance, the villagers are also faced with the indifference of the larger Church administration in the region, which would rather have its dwindling flocks herded into expedient and characterless pre-fab buildings than take the necessary steps to help the communities preserve their singular chapels.

But Waldrum proceeds undaunted. He has established the El Valle Foundation to raise funds for restoration. With the assistance of James Heese (a consummate craftsman who sensitively restored the 18th-century dwelling in Llano Quemado where he and Waldrum live), he has produced a videotape on the condition of the churches. Through his lectures and the exhibitions of his paintings and etchings and SX-70 photographs, Waldrum has drawn attention to the churches’ irreplaceable beauty.

— William Peterson