Don Stinson, "Big Bend: No Simple Wilderness" | Oil on Linen | 31 x 61 inches | 2012 | Courtesy the artist and David B. Smith Gallery (Click image to expand.)

THE HISTORY OF THE WEST HAS ALWAYS BEEN ONE OF EXPLORATION. And the history of Western art — from George Catlin’s documenting of Native American tribes to Thomas Moran’s paintings of the sublime landscapes of Yellowstone National Park — has always been closely linked to that same notion of exploration. Although the frontier has been declared closed for well over a century, interstate highways criss-cross the land, developments march over pastureland and every inch of the wilderness has been surveyed, mapped and plumbed for mineral wealth, the West is still limitless in its possibilities for discovery.

Three contemporary artists — each inspired by different subject matter, employing varied media, and working out their own highly personal relationship to the iconic West — have undertaken individual journeys of exploration. Their resulting art forces the viewer to look beyond the scenery. It enriches our understanding of the land and our relationship to it. Ultimately, it forces us to realize both its frailties and its enduring qualities, and offers a message of hope even in change. 

Karen Kitchel

Greta Van Campen

Don Stinson

Karen Kitchel, "Presentation and Representation" #1 | Oil on Wood | 29.5 x 29.5 inches | 2012 | Courtesy Robischon Gallery, Denver, CO

While Albert Beirstadt conveyed the iconic West with its grand vistas and dramatic features, painter Don Stinson, whose work is often compared to Beirstadt’s, captures the remnants of man’s interactions with those grand vistas. A Don Stinson painting might read as a traditional sweeping Western landscape, but presents a twist that captures the attention and provokes imagination. In addition to a view to admire, he offers a puzzle to ponder. It might lie in a glimpse of guardrail and a highway sign viewed from the back in an otherwise glorified view of the Green River with its dramatic cliffs. In South Park Offline, a seemingly abandoned trailer home, outhouse and lone telephone pole sit disconcertingly in the midst of a windswept, snowy plain. The Canopy features the Mid-Century Modern shade structure of a former gas station whose parking area has mature plants growing through cracks in the asphalt.

Stinson grew up in Texas taking road trips through the West with a geologist father; at an early age he learned to see more than the view. “My father was all about looking at volcanoes and roadcuts for evidence of geological activity,” Stinson recalls. “I thought every family talked about landforms and eons-old lakebeds.” A compulsive drawer as a child, Stinson said that by the time he was studying art in college he had realized that art was “a way to understand the world.” 

Greta Van Campen, "Belted Galloways, Rockport, ME" | Acrylic on Panel | 36 x 36 inches | 2012

Karen Kitchel, "Cascade #3"(Dormant Grass) (detail) | Oil on Wood | 36 x 18 inches | 2012 | Courtesy Robischon Gallery, Denver, CO

Greta Van Campen, "Leaving Dallas, TX" | Oil over Acrylic | 6 x 6 inches | 2011

In Lone Star Pool, an empty, cracked swimming pool encroached upon by the Southwestern desert tells its own story. Contrary to the story being one of loss or desolation, however, Stinson presents this and other images as a natural part of the landscape, as one step in the normal chain of events. There is no emotion conveyed beyond calm acceptance, and a realization that the beauty of a landscape lies not just in its natural, traditionally romantic features.

To Stinson, the history of the West is a history of change.

A native Westerner, Stinson studied and lived on the East Coast for 11 years. “When I came back,” he explains, “I was interested in what succeeded and what did not. There are multiple boom-and-bust economies. What looks like failure now could have been a thriving business.” 

Stinson has explored many such dualities in his work; he’s painted built landscapes like the Spiral Jetty, Sun Tunnels and Double Negative artworks; a natural-looking but manmade ice park created from recycled mining parts in Colorado; futuristic looking windfarms; and solar arrays in West Texas covering hundreds of miles. Of these, he notes, “They’re beautiful, but they present a really interesting problem. How do you express the technological sweep of these things which bring energy and even hope? You have an old sense of landscape (but) with a progressive symbol. 

Don Stinson, "On the Map: Viewing Stations Sun Tunnels, December 2003 AM" | Olin on Linen | 81 x 89 inches | Courtesy of the artist and David B Smith Gallery

Greta Van Campen, "Oklahoma Sac-N-Pac" | Acrylic on Board | 6 x 6 inches | 2011

“There’s a challenge in finding a balance between the technological sublime and status of green energy with hope for sustainable production in the West. As an artist, these open plains look beautifully blank, or beautifully active, if you’re looking at grass. Then suddenly they’re covered with solar panels. In the West,” he says, “we always have a tension between (the constant change) and the mythic West in our minds.” But to this artist, “It’s a landscape of enterprise.”

Like Don Stinson, southern California-based artist Karen Kitchel approaches the Western landscape in her own fashion: with a micro lens. Her intimately detailed paintings of plants, leaves, twigs and above all grasses turn the viewer away from “the mythic West in our minds” as Don Stinson puts it, to the fundamental West so crucial to its inhabitants, from ranchers to wildlife. “The plants that I feature in my work are both endangered and common, invasive plants,” Kitchel says. “Many of them are familiar to us in the West.” She’s intrigued by “the dramas of the botanical world, things that are engaged in struggle with each other, or with environmental conditions.” 

Kitchel spent 13 years living and working in Wyoming and Montana, where she spent much time in the field; in Montana she worked for a professor of botany. “Because of all the people I met, I became much more aware of landscapes as a fluid condition. I engage with the landscape not as scenery, but as a collection of facts, environmental conditions and properties. I do a lot of reading, I travel a lot. I’m interested in knowing what are the concerns that are actively engaging different regions and communities. Some of these invasive species are extremely successful and aggressive adapters. All of these things interest me.”

Karen Kitchel, "Actual Size #5" (Shortgrass) | Oil on Wood | 6 x 6 inches | 2011 | Courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, NM

Kitchel’s recent retrospective at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper, Wyoming, was based on a career spanning 30 years to date. Its title, A Relative Condition, comes from the Aldo Leopold quote: “Wilderness is a relative condition.” Kitchel, an enthusiast of long bike rides, points out, “When you’re going uphill by a slow method it puts you in a different relationship to the land. The view is a matter of relational situations. I think landscape and what we consider scenery is a relative condition.” 

Kitchel spent 13 years living and working in Wyoming and Montana, where she spent much time in the field; in Montana she worked for a professor of botany. “Because of all the people I met, I became much more aware of landscapes as a fluid condition. I engage with the landscape not as scenery, but as a collection of facts, environmental conditions and properties. I do a lot of reading, I travel a lot. I’m interested in knowing what are the concerns that are actively engaging different regions and communities. Some of these invasive species are extremely successful and aggressive adapters. All of these things interest me.”

Don Stinson, "33 Stuckey’s Canopy" | 2000 | Oil on Panel | 13 x 36 inches

The work of Maine-based artist Greta Van Campen provides an interesting counterpoint to that of Stinson and Kitchel. Although Van Campen’s work also draws on the great Western tradition of exploration, she approaches the subject as both a young painter and as a non-Westerner. Where Stinson and Kitchel know the region intimately, Van Campen is viewing it with fresh eyes — and usually from behind the wheel of a car. Over the course of two years encompassing six trips to each of the 50 states, Van Campen traveled by plane, train and automobile, logging 50,000 miles on her car, sending sketches to her 86 sponsors, bartering art-work for mechanical repairs and adopting a puppy along the way. She sketched, photographed and painted, both plein air and in studio, throughout her travels and in between trips in her home studio. She recorded wildlife, dwellings, farmland, phone lines, nightscapes, city scenes, Alaskan ice floes, Hawaiian volcanoes and Western vistas such as Monument Valley, all in her signature contemporary hard-edged style. Her pared-down images are distilled to their essence and portrayed with graphic style in precise shapes, bold lines and strong colors, giving them an immediacy and vigor not often seen in Western landscape painting.

Traveling as a painter forced her to go beyond the superficial, to continue to see more than the road before her, even when exhausted and road weary, and to keep working, whether in a hotel room or on the kitchen floor of a friend’s house. Ultimately, Van Campen’s paintings offer “a glimpse of America” to the viewer. But for the artist herself, she says, making art is its own reward. “The act of painting helps me look more closely and honestly at all that is around.” 

Don Stinson, Karen Kitchel and Greta Van Campen strive to paint the world as they see it, and to present beauty in the obscure and overlooked, whether it’s an old drive-in movie screen, a luxurious tangle of invasive plants or night-time lights glittering in an urban street scene. The West will always have the famous landscapes that have made it the repository of our national myths, but these artists celebrate the fact that it’s an evolving landscape whose beauties are multiple and varied.