SANTA FE — The 1,900 miles, give or take, of the Rio Grande run from Colorado into the Gulf of Mexico, crossing the length of New Mexico and tracing the US/Mexico border. The river is a vital water source in this arid and semi-arid region; it is also a dynamic site of cultural ties and political interests. 

That’s why, when I visited GOING WITH THE FLOW: ART, ACTIONS, AND WESTERN WATERS, a group exhibition at SITE Sante Fe that explores the role of water in the Southwest amid the 23-year drought, and saw nary a mention of the ongoing tug of war due to water compact mandates and their relation to that drought, I was nonplused. “Water, like art, takes many forms: it changes and flows in reaction to its environment,” states the main exhibition didactic, and, “As stewards of this land, we can benefit from the example water sets by emulating its adaptability.” Poetic, yes. Full story, no. 

The exhibition, which tends toward metaphorical, sentimental, and even nostalgic aspects of the massive topic of water, includes just three individual artists and two artist collectives: Paula Castillo, Basia Irland, Sharon Stewart, the project There Must Be Other Names for the River (Marisa DeMarco, Dylan McLaughlin, Jessica Zeglin), and M12 Studio (Richard Saxton, Margo Handwerker, Trent Segura). The show also encompasses installation sites nearby and a series of public programs (the details or participants of which were not listed in the promo materials). The works on view are primarily concerned only with the Rio Grande; of those, two held my attention — one for its simplicity, the other for its multiplicity, and both for their poignant use of abstraction. 

Installation view of There Must Be Other Names for the River (2023) (courtesy the artists [Marisa Demarco, Dylan McLaughlin, and Jessica Zeglin] and SITE Santa Fe, photo Shayla Blatchford)

Castillo’s singular sculpture “About Jetty Jack” (2022–23), placed outside SITE’s front entrance, comprises angle irons like those of the numerous jetty jacks used to straighten the Rio Grande in the 1950s and 1960s, catching debris and sediment, and preventing flooding. Subsequent building of dams rendered jetty jacks useless, prompting some communities to remove them and encourage the river to re-contour. Castillo’s piece also brings to mind readymade modernist abstract art, with its large, commanding X-like shape and steel construction. A plexiglass panel bridges the jack’s “arms,” referencing Castillo’s ongoing Reverse the Curse project, which focuses on river protections and guardianship.

There Must Be Other Names for the River touched a nerve, and struck a chord. This ongoing “data-based musical score” has been performed multiple times and has taken various physical forms since its inception in 2019. Here, a recording of six musicians representing an equal number of spots along the Rio Grande is installed in small overhead speakers along the museum’s outdoor walkway. The composition’s doleful and joyful tones, along with the vocal ranges, murmurs, and utterings of the singers, and even the plea or demand of its title, mimic the strained containment and depletion of the Rio Grande, which has been straightened, controlled, and diverted for agricultural and municipal purposes for generations, but also honored, celebrated, and mourned by local communities. Instead of overlaying a narrative, the sonification reverberates with energy, emotion, intimacy, and urgency. It literally fills the air (and my imagination), seeking and then pushing at its boundaries — just like water.

More so than thinking about the works on view, I am left wondering about the exhibition’s premise, specifically its focus on adaptability. As I write, much-needed rain falls in Albuquerque and makes its way to the Rio Grande. Given the current conditions, could this be the time to channel water’s character as a force of nature, its continual application of pressure against external limitations, rather than emulate conformity? 

M12 Studio, “Fountain (Orphan)” (c. 1900–2023), installation view at Santa Fe Railyard Park (courtesy the artist and SITE Santa Fe, photo Shayla Blatchford)
Sharon Stewart, from the series El Agua es la Vida (1992–ongoing) (courtesy the artist and SITE Santa Fe)
Paula Castillo, “About Jetty Jack” (2022–23), installation view at SITE Santa Fe (courtesy the artist, Don Usner, and SITE Santa Fe, photo Shayla Blatchford)
Basia Irland, “A Gathering of Waters, Río Grande Source to Sea” (1995–2000) (courtesy the artist and SITE Santa Fe, photo Shayla Blatchford)

GOING WITH THE FLOW: ART, ACTIONS, AND WESTERN WATERS continues at SITE Santa Fe (1606 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through July 31. The exhibition was curated by Brandee Caoba and Lucy R. Lippard.

Nancy Zastudil is an independent editor, writer, and curator working toward equitable representation in the arts. She regularly edits artist books and exhibition catalogs, and writes about visual art for...