RENO, Nev. (AP) — Romantic images of cowboys and covered wagons, railroad barons and Gold Rush-era prospectors that typically depict the settling of the American West play only supporting roles at best in a Nevada art exhibit with a broader perspective on Earth’s “final frontier.”
The show stars the indigenous people who were already here when the western reaches of North and South America allegedly were “tamed.” It’s an eclectic trip through traditional and modernistic impressions of both the exploitation and enduring beauty of the sprawling “Greater West,” an area extending from Alaska down the West Coast to Patagonia and Antarctica, and across the Pacific Ocean to Australia.
Ancient Mayan artifacts and paintings of wide-open spaces mix with grainy film footage of atomic bomb tests and hanging cardboard models of every U.S. Navy submarine that ever sailed the sea in the exhibit on display at the Nevada Museum of Art through Jan. 21.
“Unsettled” includes golf bags stacked like totem poles, basketball shoes configured into a tribal-looking ceremonial mask and a gold-plated, diamond-studded, gasoline-powered leaf blower alongside a battery operated one invented by low-rider mechanics in the midst of a mostly Hispanic 1970s gardener strike in Beverly Hills, California.
“Unlike the reliably consistent Western film genre, the unsettled land of the Greater West is liable to change, unpredictable and not yet resolved,” said JoAnne Northrup, the museum’s curatorial director and curator of contemporary art.
The “super region” known as the Greater West is the last part of the planet permanently inhabited by homo sapiens. “It really is the final frontier,” said Northrup, who worked closely with American artist Ed Ruscha to organize the exhibit in conjunction with two other museums where it will travel next, the Anchorage Museum in Alaska (April 6 to Sept. 9) and California’s Palm Springs Art Museum (October 2018 to February 2019).
The 8,200-square-foot (762-square-meter) exhibit is divided into five themes: Shifting Ground, Colliding Cultures, Colonizing Resources, The Sublime Open and Experimental Diversity.
Two hundred works by the likes of Ruscha, Ansel Adams, Paul Kos, Federico Herrero, Georgia O’Keefe and 75 others reverberate one or more meanings of “unsettled,” including lacking stability, worried and uneasy, and having no settlers or inhabitants – the latter with a special twist.
“When we had this manifest destiny that drove us westward, the lands already were settled, just not by the colonial powers,” Northrup said. “The thesis of the Greater West is the indigenous culture meeting colonial culture, the collision and what happens as a result.”
Julie Decker, the Anchorage Museum’s director and CEO, said her organization is excited about the chance to collaborate “in a way that connects regions.”
Alaska is often considered a “place of the romantic wilderness, the furthest ‘West of America’ – a place discovered,” she said. “But Alaska is host to a complex landscape, many languages and centuries of indigenous culture.”
Including indigenous artists from the state in “Unsettled” is important in helping reshape the narrative, Decker said.
Ruscha (pronounced rew-SHAY’) said he was struck by the subtleties of “Prototype for New Understanding #23,” the Air Jordans piece by British Columbia’s Brian Jungen.
“You can’t really tell until you get right in front of it, but these are actually tennis shoes that have been deconstructed, torn or ripped or cut apart and made this symmetrical kind of image that looks kind of tribal in its own way,” he said. “It really symbolizes (the) idea for this show.”
Ruscha’s work, “Lost Empires, Living Tribes,” hangs in the main gallery where visitors are greeted by Bolivian artist Sonia Falcone’s “Campo de Color (Color Field)” – 88 terracotta bowls filled with bright, multicolored pigments and a variety of ground spices, including pepper, clove, mustard, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Other works on display by Ruscha include his iconic “Chocolate Room,” a room literally made of sweet-smelling chocolate shingles. It’s the fifth version of his work since it debuted at the 1970 Venice Biennale in Italy.
“It’s extremely sophisticated because it stretches the boundaries of printmaking using chocolate,” Northrup said. “But it’s also very sensory. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to appreciate it.”
Ruscha said during a recent lecture at the museum kicking off the exhibit that he came up with the idea at a London workshop where he was making silk-screen prints and etchings using alternative materials like axel grease, maple syrup, caviar and cream.
“The idea of making shingles and shingling the walls with these pieces of paper with actual chocolate – I was completely absorbed by it,” he said. “Once we got them all hanging on the wall, I remember exiting the room for the last time and I saw a trail of ants coming in.”