19 Jul Unsettled
STORIES ABOUND OF THOSE WHO “SETTLED” IN THE WEST, and by all accounts, it was anything but easy. After arduous journeys, families took what they could, in many cases a barren patch of land no one before them had claimed for good reason. Perhaps it is because of this hardship that the West holds an allure for many, a romanticized vision of tough cowboys and noble Native Americans; untouched nature; alpenglow sunsets.
The reality for those who have long called this region home is often quite different: Indigenous cultures forced from their land, traditions and ways of life; brutal weather; fights over water and mineral rights; nuclear testing; diminishing open space; receding glaciers; wildfires; mining. Depending on the location and relationship to the West, the list goes on.
Unsettled, an exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art, offers insight into these issues through artistic vision. Expanding the conventional definitions of the West, it looks at a “super-region” that reaches from Alaska to Patagonia and from Australia to the American West. It brings together the work of artists who have lived or worked in this region and asks them to examine the commonality, beauty and imperfections that only those on the western periphery, geographically speaking, might understand.
“The title is intentionally ambiguous and resonates on many levels depending on the chosen meaning of the term,” explains JoAnne Northrup, who curated the exhibit. “The works presented reverberate with one or more meanings of the adjective ‘unsettled,’ including lacking stability; worried and uneasy; liable to change; unpredictable; not yet resolved; not yet paid; and having no settlers or inhabitants.”
William Fox, director of the museum’s center for art and the environment, first introduced the super-region theory. “I thought about the books I had been writing for 15 years, first about art and land in Nevada, and then more broadly across the large spaces of the American West, and then the deserts of Chile and Australia,” he says. “It was a place I sometimes referred to as the ‘Greater West.’ It encompasses the Pacific Basin with the exclusion of Asia. … It hosts intense accumulations of natural resources, numerous indigenous peoples, a history of European colonization, and conflicts arising from the coexistence of those factors.”
Fox’s theory resonated with Northrup, and she began thinking about ways to represent it in an exhibit. “I started thinking about who, for me, is the contemporary artist that most represents the West,” Northrup says. “I thought of the Los Angeles-based artist Ed Ruscha and began conversing with him and collecting ideas.”
Ruscha then stepped in as the collaborating curator, and the end result is an exhibition of 200 objects, starting with Pre-Columbian and Southwestern pots — pieces Northrup felt were tied to the West because they are literally made from the earth — and extending to contemporary art that looks at a range of issues from nuclear testing to wildfires and water rights. The exhibit celebrates connections among diverse cultures and artistic traditions and mediums. Although each work is representative of the West, like the ambiguity in the exhibit’s title, the viewer is left to her own interpretation.
Herding, for example, an oil painting by New Mexico artist Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, is on loan from the Albuquerque Museum. It is an abstract painting of shapes, color and Native American symbols that the artist is known for creating and thinks of as messages or bridges between cultures.
“The viewer may not see any of my thoughts, only a peaceful landscape, until they read the text about my thoughts,” Smith says. Her description reads: “Herding is about the open space that existed in the Western U.S. prior to the Great Invasion (my term) when we Native people moved about freely in order to harvest our food sources. Soon after the Great Invasion, Euro-Americans fenced spaces into which they herded animals and Native Americans. …”
Also touching on man’s desire to tame the untamable is sculptor Paul Kos’ life-sized, looping video, Roping Boar’s Tusk. Kos is one of the founders of California’s influential 1970s Conceptual Art movement. The film depicts the artist’s absurd attempt to lasso an iconic rock formation that juts out of the seemingly flat sage-brushed landscape of Wyoming. It looks like he just might do it, although the viewer knows it’s impossible.
“It’s like they can be standing there in the deserted Wyoming landscape and feel it,” Kos says. “It’s an experience of them being with me there first … and then the absurdity in roping it.”
Kos spent much of his childhood in the mining town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, and saw the effect of mining on the land and culture. “My grandfathers both worked for the coal mines, and my dad worked as a coal mining doctor,” he says. It was from this childhood experience, also depicted in one of his infamous installations from 1970, The Sound of Ice Melting, that he coined the phrase, “The more coal burns, the more ice melts.”
Wendy Red Star also asks us to examine preconceived notions about the region. In her Four Seasons series, the Portland, Oregon-based artist, originally from the Crow reservation in Montana, uses a fantasy-like photography series to dismantle the conceptions people have of Native Americans in the West.
“Four Seasons was basically an experience I had living in L.A., away from Montana and the reservation,” Red Star says. “That was the first big city that I lived in, and I was feeling pretty lonesome, especially culturally. I knew if I went to the natural history museum, I would be able to find Crow material objects and maybe satisfy that loneliness. That sounds so twisted, but that really speaks to the history of Native people being collected and objectified.”
Walking through the museum that day in 2006, she found the Native American exhibit bordering the dinosaur exhibit. “It sets you up to think they are extinct,” she says. “I found this Crow moccasin and was looking at other people; they were thinking this culture is a dead culture, and to me, it’s not.”
Red Star also noticed elaborate dioramas set up to reflect animals from different continents, which reminded her of Montana. In Four Seasons, she “merged these two antiquated museum concepts” to create her photography series. She created four dioramas, one for each season, depicting majestic landscapes and decorated with inflatable animals, plastic flowers and other artificial materials. Red Star sits in the middle of each scene, dressed in traditional Crow regalia, as if she is on display. The work pokes fun at the romantic idealizations of Native Americans as “one with nature.”
“It’s the way that Native people have become stereotyped,” she says. “It’s a fantasy that’s very familiar, but once you look closer, there’s the thumbtacks piecing it together, the deer made of cardboard. It breaks down this fantasy people have of the West and Native people.”
Additional works will be exhibited by Francis Alÿs, Olga de Amaral, Mark Bradford, Chris Burden, Emily Carr, Bruce Conner, Sonia Falcone, Rodney Graham, Brian Jungen, Ana Mendieta, Georgia O’Keeffe and many others. Narrowing a super-region and the topics that go along with it is daunting in one exhibit, so Northrup views this as part one, with the potential to keep telling these stories in the future.
“In all the maps you look at, we are on the outskirts,” she says. “I hope to be able to represent the land specifically, along with the common issues that exist within.”
Editor’s Note: Unsettled runs from August 26 through January 21, 2018, at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada.