Stock Show season traditionally gives Denver galleries a yearly opportunity, if not a mandate, to showcase art of the West. Most of it stereotypically portrays the romantic ideals of cowboy life, often expertly mimicking work from the era of the Golden West, say, 1860-1920. Among the herd, The West as Subject, at the MSCD Center for the Visual Arts, sticks out like a wild bronco in a corral full of donkeys.
The exhibition tries to give a more complete view of the West through contemporary art. Some of the selections would satisfy committed collectors of the traditional genre: William Matthews's portraits of handsome saddle bums and James Wolford's exquisitely light-bathed oil paintings of Rocky Mountain vistas stand out. But the primary intent here is to overturn the conventions that define us and provide rich soil for artistic commentary. Many of the pieces are direct responses to the traditions of cowboy art, meant to satirize or to refresh such commonplace subjects as vast, empty landscapes, ridin' and ropin' sculptures, horse paintings and Indian scenes. Though far from a shrieking political soapbox, this show presents nonstandard approaches to the West, including artwork that grapples with such real-life issues as the environment, water conservation and ethnic movements.
"Silicon Landscape," a big, electronic installation by Laura Audrey and collaborator Steve Durham, sums up the blend of technical, traditional and natural forces that characterize The West as Subject. A jigsaw construction of sandstone, glass and sandpaper-covered board, this model landscape is wired like a solar-energy experiment. Photosensitive switches jut from hexagon-based "tiles"; each solar switch operates a series of lights. Wind sounds whisper faintly from a computer and speakers that oversee the piece. Approaching viewers trigger the lights and sounds, making the installation interactive. A thought-provoking sculpture, "Silicon Landscape" subverts the desert motif of Western art. The sand-based elements force us to contemplate advanced technology rather than view a banal retread of familiar imagery. It impresses with its winsome playfulness and the bare beauty of its functioning parts; for that reason, decorative black decals of contrasting sandpaper added to each "tile" seem out of context here and detract from the power of an otherwise successful experiment.
Sandra Kaplan's mural-size representational oil paintings also probe the rift between the antique West of buggies and buckskin and the modern West of electric power, computers and agribusiness. "Tale of Two Towers," a diptych with an eroded-rock tower on one side and a look-alike tower of steel girders on the other, directly confronts the gap between ideal and real. "Opposites Attract" shows deer grazing under the ominous silhouette of a communications tower bristling with antennae and satellite dishes. Kaplan's photorealistic rendering skill increases the ironic force of her paintings.
E.C. Cunningham uses popular-culture implements to bring attention to the vanishing wilderness with his plastic-laminated printworks simulating menus from roadside diners. "The Plight of the Indian" sandwiches drawings of roads, landscapes and appropriated exploitive imagery of Native Americans to suggest that the real victory over the Indians was a commercial real estate coup. Drex Brooks's "Sweet Medicine: Sand Creek Massacre Site" captures the sadness of that misty Colorado meadow with bleakness and accuracy. Pop-inspired paintings enliven traditional themes with color and camp. Tracy Felix's "Long's Peak" turns that familiar mountain into a candy-colored cartoon of melding clouds and snow fields. And Navajo artist Melanie Yazzie's mixed-media serigraphs allow the very stereotypes that cripple her people to enrich her satiric creations. "This Is My World," an all-over-red collage-design combining disturbing headlines and a smiling Indian girl from a school yearbook, speaks loudly about the confusion of Native American racial identity.
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For viewers who can't stand to see their favorite art style turned upside down, "The West as Subject" might seem outrageous. But by adding a few high-tech twists and feisty revisionist politics, the show may open a few minds to a West as complex and troubled as it is beautiful and nostalgic.