Cebolla Church is in most respects a typical painting by Georgia O’Keeffe: a deadpan, apparently artless presentation of a subject in colors of bleached sky and adobe. I say apparently artless, because O’Keeffe is really being sly with the image. Note that she squeezes the church into the rectangle of the canvas. Still, it doesn’t fit: the eaves of the roof are clipped off, as in a too tightly focused snapshot. Such brutal cropping robs the church of any sense of place. It is not a place but an object, not all that different from an apple on a table or one of O’Keeffe’s beloved cow’s skulls. Cebolla Church as architectural still life? Why not?
But what most intrigues me about this painting–puzzles me to the point of irritation–is that thing in the window. What the heck is it? Look at the rest of the painting, how the artist smoothes and simplifies the forms into broad shapes like some adjective-averse copyeditor. It is all spare and succinct. But just when we are primed to appreciate the image as a deadpan statement–like an apple or skull–the artist goes and puts something strange and arresting in that window. What the heck is it? It obviously was important enough to the artist that she suppressed her editorial instincts and kept it in the picture, the one touch of mystery in an otherwise obvious painting.
A while back I thought I had a chance to solve the mystery. I was driving my son out west to college and the road took us through New Mexico. We turned north out of Santa Fe along Route 84, past Abiquiu, where O’Keeffe lived, past the Technicolor cliffs of Ghost Ranch, and on a little ways to the town of Cebolla (map), population: 94. We looked around for the Church of Santo Niño. We were directed across the road to a low brick building that resembled O’Keeffe’s church only in its modesty. I learned later that O’Keeffe’s adobe church was torn down soon after she painted it. Sadly, there was nothing strange in the windows of its replacement. I showed a photograph of our painting to some men at the local roadhouse, but no one even remembered the old church. One guy stared at me and asked “you didn’t drive all the way from North Carolina to ask about that thing in the window, did you?”
When I got home I wrote to the curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. As the author of the definitive catalogue of O’Keeffe’s paintings, she would surely know the identity of that thing. Alas, no. In her e-mail reply, she confessed to being as clueless and curious as me.
I then corresponded with several scientists at New Mexican universities, asking if the thing reminded them of any local plant, a cactus flower perhaps, pressed against the glass. No one offered a suggestion. My letter to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe went unanswered. I’ve now hit the brick wall.
So now I appeal to my readers. Can anyone identify that thing in the window?