Wonder Holy Ladder is an exhibition about the symmetry and equanimity that underlie our complex cosmos. Cory Feder and Diego Medina (Piro-Manso-Tiwa) worked together to conceptualize the show, and a deep sense of collaboration is evident not only between the artists but among their spiritual traditions, the Southwest, and even the gallery’s architecture. It is as if the artists gathered them together purposefully as an antidote to the ubiquitous transactional relationships of the 21st century.
Some of Medina’s ancestors settled in the Mesilla Valley in New Mexico near what is now Las Cruces, where he lives. His work is rife with New Mexican vistas, adobe buildings, and Southwestern Puebloan patterns and designs which he spreads against the sky. The lucidity with which he draws, however, grounds the symbolism he uses to reveal an everydayness. Medina draws back the veil a bit to show us what we always knew was there.
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His works are colored pencil on wood panels, materials that feel especially unassuming when contrasted with the subjects he depicts. In “gathering of the prophets” (2022), Medina presents a panel divided by a line of portholes to the sky. On one side of the celestial divide, ancient rocks seem to gaze into a glowing orb around which they are circled. On the other side, a frog stares into a spectacular sunrise or sunset, a haloed, rainbowed star pulsates above the sun. The prophets here are the rocks, the frog, the sun, the cosmos — but also, there is a sense that “the prophets” refer to everything Medina has gathered together: the pencils, the wood, himself, the viewer, the gallery.
Feder is a ceramicist and illustrator and uses both mediums in Wonder Holy Ladder. The small, sculpted faces in “views from the ladder” (2022) are inspired by the Korean theater masks that adorned the walls of her childhood home. The faces, which occupy random squares on a kind of checkerboard that is also a kind of ladder, seem to be jockeying for position in a familiar game, though the rules remain opaque.
Feder is of Korean heritage, among others, and currently lives in Santa Fe, a city founded on the traditional lands of the Tewa people and surrounded by communities of Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache. Two ceramic vessels, “pillar of mercy” (2022) and “pillar of strength”(2022) call to mind kivas — circular, underground rooms entered by ladder and designed by Indigenous people of the Southwest for spiritual ceremonies.
The cross-sections seem to be two sides of the same ceramic vessel; inside of each we see a maze of curved rooms and levels reached by miniature ladders. But what occupies this space is not domestic life à la Richard Scarry but a neighborly world with a logic of its own. Cacti grow from the floors, creatures inhabit the rooms, and small, humanoid figures gather on and wander the levels. It is a vision of interior life — a realm that, even when hidden, is ever-present in all we do.
To look at Feder’s other vessels is to imagine them full of rooms and wonder what they contain. In proximity to Medina’s metaphysical works, the vessels are more than containers of the subconscious, they are visions of another plane of existence, another home — a spiritual one.
The Valley is a warm gallery. Its focus on exhibiting early-career artists who explore mysticism, craft, and place feels imbued in the building itself — an older adobe naturally lit by skylights. To be a new gallery in Taos committed to showing contemporary art with these themes is to subvert the stereotype of Southwestern art by embracing it a bit. Place, community, culture, people, land, water, spirit are important here. To rail against those themes is, in a sense, to fuel the stereotype. In this way, the gallery becomes a partner in creating meaning.
While I visited Wonder Holy Ladder, I thought of a fragment written by the German poet and mystic Novalis: “All philosophy is really homesickness. It is the desire to be at home everywhere.” Perhaps this isn’t a show about leaving behind transactional relationships as much as it is about finding a home everywhere.
Medina and Feder both incorporate animals and unidentifiable creatures in their pieces. They depict these animals as peaceful, eternal watchers of sublime mysteries of existence: the constellations, a blooming iris, time unfolding. Feder’s “sun ram” (2022) stands tall, gazing into distance (not the distance, just distance) bearing flowers. A turtle balances a ladder, a symbol of transcendence in many cultures, on its back. In Medina’s “there he is” (2022), a crow looks at peace on a branch, an emblem of universal symmetry, a pattern made of stardust floats above. The bird pulses with nothing more than its utter crow-ness, with nothing more than everything it has.
Wonder Holy Ladder continues at The Valley gallery (118 Camino de La Placita, Unit D, Taos, New Mexico) through July 23. The show was curated by Ari Myers.