Stark Museum explores multi-faceted identity of American West
The West evokes a uniquely American identity that many people share around the world. I can remember numerous times, while overseas, that once someone found out I was from Texas they wanted to know what my ranch was like, how many head of cattle did I own or if oil wells dotted the land? Yeah, I had none of those things, but it never mattered. I was from Texas so I must be a cowboy.
This strong identity has resonated throughout popular culture the last 150-or-so years and has routinely been reinforced through movies, books and art.
The Stark Museum of Art is capitalizing on that identity with “Branding the American West: Paintings and Films 1900-1950,” featuring works from the museum’s prominent Western art collection and jointly with the Brigham Young University Museum of Art of Provo, Utah.
The exhibition is the culmination of approximately five years of planning and mutual discussions over collections sharing and conversation, Sarah Boehme, Stark Museum of Art curator, said.
“The idea of the exhibition was to explore the changing perceptions toward the West in the early 20th century,” she said. “We looked at the reframing of the West in contemporary ideas of what branding means; a brand on a hide or a company logo. It’s about revealing identities from our past and the multiple ways to look at the West.”
Of special note, in addition to curating the exhibition, Boehme co-edited the expansive and elaborative catalog with BYU curator Marian Wardle. Printed by the University of Oklahoma, the catalog offers six richly detailed essays of many of the concepts presented in the exhibit by a team of scholars including Lamar University history professor Jimmy L. Bryan, LeAnne Howe, Elizabeth Hutchinson, John Ott, Dean Rader and Susan S. Rugh.
The exhibition greets visitors by presenting several themes often depicted in early films and popular culture. While our understanding of the West might delve through many layers of geography, people and culture, the exhibit shows examples from films such as 1950’s “Broken Arrow,” starring Jimmy Stewart, and the romantic, and sometimes caricatured, connection that Hollywood sometimes makes when it takes an idea and tries to bring to life.
A key element about the exhibit is its overview of the West’s portrayal in media and entertainment, as well as traditional painting, photography and illustration.
Jimmy L. Bryan, writes in the catalog, how Frederick Remington’s “His First Lesson” (1903), is lampooned in the 1917 film “Wild and Wooly,” about a city-slicker Easterner who becomes so enamored with the West that he creates a fantasy of it in his New York apartment. “His First Lesson” is prominently featured in the background. Life imitating fantasy life.
It could be said that one of the reoccurring concepts many of the artists try to convey is that of a mythic fantasy involving a strong mixture of conflict, landscapes and people. As I toured the galleries with Boehme and later read the catalog, the brand identity is what makes this exhibition so powerful.
“The idea of creating a strong concept of authentic American art form compelled many of the artists,” Boehme said. “It was a reaction against European art movements to establish an American art movement.
“We are identified so often by our geography and it is what is unique about America, what is creative about America. It is the West that is so rooted in our land, our place of who we are — it is a natural source of inspiration.”
While there is not a single central artist to the exhibition, there is certainly a focus on the work by the Taos Society of Artists, and an artist not part of the Taos group — Californian Maynard Dixon (1875-1946).
The Taos Society of Artists formed in 1915 and functioned through 1927. Wardle and Boehme write in the catalog, “Individually and collectively, the Taos artists and Maynard Dixon painted visions of western lands and peoples that fostered new romantic brandings of the West both physically, through the materiality of paint on canvas, and emotionally, through the evocation of feelings.”
The artist Joseph H. Sharp first visited Taos while on a sketching trip in 1883, and was captivated with its enchanting atmosphere. He is often referred to as the artist who “started it all.” Later, while studying in Paris, he shared his enthusiasm with two artist friends, Bert G. Phillips and Ernest L. Blumenschein. and the two planned to journey through the area on a trip to Mexico. As a result of a broken wagon wheel on Sept. 3, 1898, the two artists stayed in the Taos area instead of completing their scheduled trip to Mexico.
Back in Paris, Blumenschein met E.I. Couse and told him about his journey to these enchanting lands. This inspired Couse to also explore Taos. Oscar E. Berninghaus joined the Taos artists and with the addition of Herbert Dunton, a painter of cowboys and ranch life, the “Founding” group numbered six. On July 1, 1915, the first meeting of the Taos Society of Artists was held. The proposed purpose of the association was to promote the showing and sale of their work.
The group then met Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins and voted them in as active members in July of 1917. Julius Rolshoven became an associate member in 1917 and then an active member in 1918. E. Martin Hennings became an active member in 1924. The only woman of the group, Catherine C. Critcher, became an active member also in 1924. And Kenneth Adams, the last and youngest of the group, became a member in 1926, only one year before the group disbanded.
You can see the passion and emotion conveyed in their works. For example, Blumenschein’s “The Extraordinary Affray,” of 1926, displays a dramatic ritual by Native Americans that combines solemn praying juxtaposed with the swaying movements of acolytes engaged in a hypnotic dance. And there is the more modern “Movie Night at Taos Theater,” from 1939, by Berninghaus that shows folks in Taos watching a Western movie with “Indians” preparing to attack a careening stagecoach barreling down some narrow, mountain road.
Dixon’s works attracted me because they were so different from many of the other works shown, not only because of the style of painting, but because social realism of the transition from the Old West to the New West looked so different. While Dixon did a variety of depictions during his career, the exhibit showcased what Boehme said is the “weary West” — the idea that civilizing the West was hard work, marked by many years of toil, aging and time of reflection about earlier times.
Dixon’s “No Place to Go,” “Roadside” and “Forgotten Man” show a different side of the west — those that came west and struggle in a modern world to survive. The works created during the Depression show individuals who are worn and beaten, alone and without options. His social realism echoes the American Realism of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” Whereas, Hopper used urban settings, Dixon uses frequently uses landscapes or, in this case, downtrodden men.
The exhibit displays a wide-range of styles from the artists and there are literally too many works to cite and explore here — go see the show for yourself! It’s wonderful jewel in our own backyard.
The Stark Museum of Art is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m and admission is free for all ages.
For more information, visit starkculturalvenues.org/starkmuseum, or call 409-883-3513.
By Stephan Malick, ISSUE staff writer