Looking West could have been an eloquent disquisition on the uneven American cultural fascination with “the West” — a fascination not even everyone shares — including its history and politics, ideas of American expansionism, racism, colonialism and American Indian rights. Instead, work in the exhibition seems to have been chosen simply because it in some way visually refers to cowboys, Indians and some western landscapes. Actual guns and branding irons round out the selection.
More than 80 works are in this exhibition curated by a Florida art-center director Evelyn Craft. “Around the world,” her statement reads, “a cowboy is synonymous with an American. None of us can escape the label western, whether we live in New York, Florida, Oregon, California, Kansas or Missouri.” I think Asians, African-Americans and Latinos, to name a few, would disagree. I don’t know many Chinese-American people who see themselves as synonymous with cowboys. Essentialist ideas — that around the world everyone is fascinated with “the West,” and that “none of us can escape” — glaze over individuals, promoting homogeneity in thought and historical narrative. We do not all share “universal” feelings and ideas.
Theodore Waddell’s print of horses in a field might “look” western, if we all know he’s from Montana or if the title “Topeka Horses” conveys westernness for every viewer. Otherwise, how do we know those horses aren’t in a field in Kentucky or rural Pennsylvania?
A precious few of the artists here evoke the important issues raised by America’s westward expansion — or simply make interesting work.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Nation in Montana, makes prints that combine iconic mythic animal and human images. Drawn with a deliberately naïve hand, her birds, childlike figures and nature images culled from other sources, form a pastiche of personal and political commentary on issues facing American Indians as well as the environment.
Washington, D.C., artist Fort Guerin’s text-based work borrows from popular culture and cartooning. He paints or prints images of cowboys, then covers the surrounding surfaces with obsessive journaling. In “Cowboy #2,” a bit of the text reads: “Maybe you don’t want to be normal, maybe you want to be a little different” in small, crabbed handwriting. Dense and frequently hard to read, this all-over coverage — sometimes on wood panels — has an antique aspect to it that fosters intimacy, as if we have discovered a page from Guerin’s scribbled diary.
Appropriated from television and movies, the work of Montana artist Gordon McConnell suggests a mythic ideology that popular culture embraced — and often still does — about Manifest Destiny. His black-and-white paintings (pictured) of men on horses, mounted cavalry and American Indians on horseback resemble film stills. Often diminutive, at about 9 inches by 12 inches, they disconcert with their proximate size to photographs or small computer screens.
In a separate gallery — in what should have been a separate exhibition — works by photographers Larry Schwarm and Wes Lyle document the beauty of the Kansas prairies and the life of the people who populate the Midwest, respectively. The photography is excellent but is disserved by the offhand inclusion of those guns and branding irons.