Western artists strut their stuff
The title of the show currently at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is a tad complicated: the Second Western States Exhibition/38th Corcoran Biennial of American Painting. And “Western Art” in this instance is by no means limited to such subjects as cowpokes and silver spurs. Instead, the essential idea, explains Clair List, the museum’s associate curator for contemporary art, is to convey “a distinctly regional spirit: the mystique of the Old West coupled with imagery from the New West.” The 106 works by 30 contemporary artists on display are intended, she adds, to demonstrate “a sense of unashamed freedom to raid art history in order to forge personal styles; a wry, satirical, even quirky ability at storytelling and, above all, the response of each artist to the natural environmental beauty of the West, with its celebrated light, luminous colors and wide-open expanses.”
On that level this show succeeds admirably. Unseen here are documentaries on the style of a Frederick Remington or a Charles Russell. For the most part, the artists represented make clear statements about the world they inhabit. And if that sounds forbidding, be assured that their offerings are all approachable and sometimes downright friendly.
Ed Blackburn of Fort Worth might be accused of nostalgia with his oils of stills from Grade B Westerns. Painted in two shades of gray, they are not the lurid illustrations of dime novels but are closer to frozen images of early television Westerns captured on an old Philco set. Hoppy Serves a Writ is a look at a tense moment: A poker game is interrupted and a barroom fight begins, and darn if it doesn’t look like William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy is ready to deal a serious blow to a tough opponent. Then there’s an artist with a wonderfully apt name, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, an American Indian who resides on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. She paints with bold colors and stacks her playful images much like a totem pole. Her work is autobiographical and full of the symbolism of her Indian heritage.
Some of the signals these artists are sending out are ominous. The abstractions of Laddie John Dill of Venice, Calif, seem to recommend isolation. His canvases are divided: One side is dark, and the other is an inferno. John Fudge, a Denver artist, takes a surrealistic look out of an ordinary window at a clear and huge view of Saturn and its rings. His The Light of Day, with its incongruous and disturbing view, is truly haunting.
Nowhere is the vastness of the land and the notion that it is a “big country” susceptible to the violent forces of nature more vivid than in the work of Charles Arnoldi, also of Venice. His enormous acrylic constructions on plywood show a dazzling use of color and tremendous energy. On close inspection the linear design is discovered to be the remnants of roughly gouged-out plywood. It turns out that the artist uses a chain saw to fashion these dynamic works of painting and sculpture. There is lots of humor in this show, and much of it is satirical or even mordant. Hawaiian artist Masami Teraoka does wonderfully crafted watercolors which resemble the Japanese Ukiyo-e style. A seaside scene is graceful and harmonious until a few details intrude; Teraoka adds bikini-clad women on horseback galloping through the ocean, and beer cans are strewn around the landscape. In these gorgeous renditions of an ancient style modern reality is decidedly out of place—and so Teraoka boldly makes his point. Robert Colescott is less subtle in his ironic fun in an oil of Shirley Temple Black With Bill Robinson White. This black Shirley Temple with a white Bill Robinson is tongue-in-cheek humor with real bite.
A delicate pink shoe belonging to a young girl kicks a pastel cupcake through the air—what else would you call this work but Nobody’s Cupcake? The artist, Margaret Nielson of Los Angeles, pictures a martini sailing through the air in another painting. These objects appear fluid and graceful when captured in a midair impossibility. San Francisco’s Raymond Saunders delights with his It Wasn’t Easy Being a First Grader. In an enamel-and-collage-filled canvas, there are Donald Duck’s nephews, a tentatively scrawled column of figures waiting to be added, a teacher’s blackboard rendering of how the artist’s signature should look, and six crayons. Perhaps the most comforting section of the show is the work by Dallas artist David Bates. His large oil canvases are autobiographical and seem primitive in technique. The characteristics so highly valued in the prototypical Western hero—confidence, strength, calm, vitality, authority and assurance—are all evident in his work.
After closing at the Corcoran on April 3, the exhibition moves on to the Lakeview Museum of Arts & Sciences, Peoria, III. (May 6-Aug. 31), the Scottsdale Center for Arts in Arizona (Oct. 9-Nov. 20) and the Albuquerque Museum in New Mexico (Dec. 18-March 4, 1984). The show will continue its tour at a number of California galleries next year.