The West: There isn’t a much broader topic you could think of for an art exhibit. But then, we already are west, and most of us have been here for a while. That fact simultaneously makes the subject easier and creates its own obstacles. More than just about anywhere else in the country, the American West has, in addition to history, its own mythic structures and layers of meaning embedded in the very sagebrush. It might be hard to see the desert for the relative lack of trees.
All these potential difficulties were on the mind of Jill Dawsey, interim curator for the Salt Lake Art Center, who organized the exhibit Go West. As in other exhibits she has facilitated, she finds “the most interesting art is driven by ideas. I wanted this show to be about who we are as well as where we are.”
After all, it’s a subject matter that has already been addressed by local artists probably more than any other, chiefly in landscape paintings, photographs and portraits of local residents. Dawsey, also acting chief curator at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, wanted to use the exhibit to look at versions of the “Go West” narrative that haven’t been examined as much in the past.
That included some narratives that might be considered subversive, she believes. The West isn’t just a place; it’s been an imperative to act, as in Horace Greeley’s famous “Go west, young man” quote that provides the title of the show. What happens if one goes “too far West”? she wondered. Zoe Crosher’s series of photographs “Transgressing the Pacific” hauntingly depict places celebrities came to the end of the West, and their lives: the place Natalie Wood disappeared off Catalina Island and where Beach Boy Dennis Wilson drowned in Marina del Rey, among others.
Colter Jacobsen’s work creates a transgressive counterpart to the traditional Western narrative of self-reliant (heterosexual) masculinity with his works examining San Francisco as a city gay teens trekked towards in search of a haven. His work includes the art book “Facelessbook,” aptly titled to essay the quest for identity as well as search for the object of desire, all to the soundtrack of the Coasters’ song “Searchin,” covered by singer Coconut. It’s an alternative yet essential take on the romance of the West.
A different kind of sexual dynamic at play in the West is looked at with Angela Ellsworth‘s “Seer Bonnets.” Embodying the artist’s own history as a descendent of early Mormon leader Lorenzo Snow, these bonnets are based on the ones pioneer women wore, only pierced with corsage pins, as if to gouge the heads of wearers. The full series, only partially on display here, includes 35 bonnets—one for each of Joseph Smith’s wives and a set of nine for Snow’s wives.
Alison Pebworth has actually re-enacted a slice of Western history by taking her set of acrylic-on-canvas banners cross-country by camper, stopping at obscure roadside locales to show them off. These are subversive too: in “Dangling Man,” a carnival “strong woman” suspends two baskets above her head, one holding Native American leader Black Hawk, the other Dick Cheney.
This kind of exhibit would have felt incomplete without a few video installations to open a lens on the cinematic nature of the West. “Winchester Redux,” by the late Jeremy Blake, stakes out a story about the famed Winchester Mystery House, its architecture designed to appease the ghosts of people killed by Winchester rifles. Mungo Thomson’s “The American Desert” extracts characters from the old Looney Tunes cartoons for a look at a landscape comic yet beautiful, haunted by its own ghosts. These depictions demonstrate the possibilities for eccentricity in a geography of extremes, but also the attempt to outrun our own history as much as an idealized version of the west as never-ending frontier.
Several works incorporate text, most poignantly Andrea Geyer/Simon J. Ortiz’s “Sand Creek 1864/1981/2008.” The work includes a triptych of Geyer’s photographs of prairie glass framed underneath panels of glass etched with Ortiz’s poem about a massacre of Native Americans. Dawsey describes it as “juxtaposing moments of the past with the recent history” like the war in Iraq, part of the history of our country’s militaristic attitude towards displacing peoples, which was in a sense how the West was “won.”
All these various depictions of the West are woven together into a vision in which they reverberate and meld into a whole; after all “The West” is a microcosm of America itself, especially in more recent years a country of hyper-reinvention. “I hope people ponder their own history: How does a person, a people, come to be in a place?” notes Dawsey. “I hope it piques a curiosity.”
Salt Lake Art Center
20 S. West Temple
Through Jan. 9