On the second floor of a 110-year-old building in downtown Albuquerque, Vicente Telles sits in a group of contemporary art studios, his surroundings a physical metaphor for the worlds that define him: old and new, traditional and contemporary, devoted santero one day, edgy iconoclast the next.
There, above Brixens restaurant and bar, at Fourth Street and Central Avenue, he walks across a paint-splattered floor to retrieve an intricately carved Spanish colonial–style wooden altarpiece with delicately hinged shutters. Its unblemished surface awaits the natural pigments of his paintbrush and then entry into Traditional Spanish Market, July 27–28 on the Santa Fe Plaza.
Over at his work table, paints, stretched canvases, and serape blankets will soon deliver different multimedia statements, ones as lighthearted as an ode to a paleta and as hard-charging as Jesus’ body transfigured into a Samaritan’s water jug. That painting, Agua de Vida, represents the anonymous gifts of water left for desert border crossers that are often slashed by immigration foes. In Telles’ version, the cuts in the jug represent the wounds to Christ’s body. A gleaming gold disk tops the bottle, reminding viewers to seek their reflection in the divine.
These are the kinds of pieces he does the rest of the year, beyond Spanish Market and its tradition-bound tenets.
“I’m coming up on my third year in Traditional Spanish Market, and I buck the rules,” he says. “For two years, I’ve been told that I need to do this, do that. But how do you preserve something without moving it forward?”
Telles isn’t the first to ask the question, and he won’t be the last. As part of the Chicano art movement of the 1970s, Luis Tapia began defining new ways of melding tradition with modernity’s challenges. That evolution later drew artists like Nicholas Herrera and Arthur López, who adapted religious symbols to speak in new ways. One put a handcuffed Christ into a police car, some celebrated lowrider culture, and many held barbed riffs on technology, substance abuse, or the inherent power of women to be more than docile saints.