When Frederick Jackson Turner introduced American historians to his Frontier Thesis in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, very few paid attention to the significance of his proposition. It was the frontier which emboldened the “composite nationality” of Americans, Turner contended. “In the crucible of the frontier, the immigrants were Americanized, liberated and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics.”
But, by the early 20th century, “Jackson’s theme was prevalent in political speech, in the way high schools taught history, in patriotic paintings—in short, everywhere,” historian Colin Woodard wrote in a recent issue of the Smithsonian magazine. “Perfectly timed to meet the needs of a country experiencing dramatic and destabilizing change, Turner’s thesis was swiftly embraced by academic and political institutions, just as railroads, manufacturing machines and telegraph systems were rapidly reshaping American life.”
Meanwhile, Turner had changed his mind, as Woodard explained. “Turner saw the whole history of the country as a wrestling match between these smaller quasi-nations, albeit a largely peaceful one guided by rules, laws and shared American ideals.”
By the time historians gathered at Utah State University to mark the centenary of Turner’s Frontier Thesis in 1993, the consensus was evident, solidifying and validating Turner’s changed perspective by showing, indeed, the Frontier Thesis had it wrong. There was a dramatic generational shift in perspective. “Historians are challeng[ing] more effectively the racist, sexist, and culturally chauvinistic stereotypes and structures that have for so long permeated thought and discourse about the significance of different peoples in the American West,” historian David G. Gutiérrez wrote.
AN EXTRAORDINARY COLLABORATION
Drawn from the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and four museums in the American West, including the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA), Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea is a magnificent example of this significant reconceptualization of the region’s history. The exhibition is currently at UMFA through June 11.
The exhibition’s strengths arise from the extraordinary collaboration of curators from SAAM, UMFA and three other museums representing the fastest growing cities and states in the West. The five-year partnership, made possible by the Art Bridges Foundation, includes the Boise Art Museum in Idaho; the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon and the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington, along with SAAM and UMFA.
The partnership comprised a two-part exhibition program and professional exchange sessions. The first phase encompassed loans from the SAAM collection. In 2019, UMFA featured four works from Thomas Moran, Georgia O’Keeffe, Diego Rivera and Alma Thomas.
In an interview with The Utah Review, Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said Many Wests has succeeded as a “ground-breaking” model for how museums can operate, organize and curate exhibitions. For one institution, the objective of organizing an exhibition highlighting the many ways in which the history, culture and artistic expressions of a vast, diverse region which cannot be compacted into a single definitive chronicle might have overwhelmed the ideal intentions. But in linking the spectrum of curatorial expertise and coordinating the strengths of each institution’s art collections, the desired exhibition narrative became more compelling and representative of the expanding historiography which has enlightened perspectives about the American West.
UMFA is the last stop among the western art museums before the exhibition heads to SAAM in Washington, D.C. (July 28, 2023–Jan. 14, 2024).
The exhibition’s thematic anchor is beautifully realized in The Protagonist of an Endless Story by Puerto Rican painter Angel Rodríguez-Díaz. The 1993 portrait captures Chicana novelist and poet Sandra Cisneros, best known for her debut novel, The House on Mango Street. Cisneros, shown in a black skirt adorned with sequins, commands immediate respect, with her arms crossed and legs set apart.
Viewing the portrait, one is reminded of Loose Woman, a poem from a collection of her poetry that was published in 1994:
By all accounts I am
a danger to society.
I’m Pancha Villa.
I break laws,
upset the natural order,
anguish the Pope and make fathers cry.
I am beyond the jaw of law.
I’m la desperada, most-wanted public enemy.
My happy picture grinning from the wall.
It is the proper introduction to the three main threads of the exhibition’s wisely curated exploration of the multidimensional historiography which has arisen for considering a fully rounded history of the American West: Caretakers, Memory Makers and Boundary Breakers. The exhibition is presented in Spanish and English.
The selected works evoke the parallel evolution of enlightened artistic expression and historiography concerning the American West. Fire and Bones by James Lavadour is an oil painting on linen, composed of two panels as a testimony to the meaning of wildfires and restoration. One depicts a skeletal figure emerging from a ridge in eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains while the other panel depicts fire not as an evil but instead in its context as a natural phenomenon.
Four Seasons: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer is part of a series of photographs by Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke/Crow), who depicts herself in traditional Crow dress amidst fabricated yet grand landscapes representing each of the seasons. She takes aim at the familiar conventions of natural history museum exhibitions which often use installations and dioramas that imagine and romanticize how frontier life would have been like for Native Americans. The artist has a wickedly good sense of ironic and sarcastic play in her work. There are plastic flowers, Astroturf, inflatable animals and plenty of other artificial props. She uses commercially produced panoramic landscape images as her background. The overall look evokes memories of what carefully composed and contrived magazine and media campaigns looked like during the 1970s and 1980s. The artist critiques the unhealthy sort of nostalgia that refuses to acknowledge the complex and fluid nature of Native heritage and those who have envisioned Indigenous history and identity framed still within its most artificially constructed stereotypes and frames.
ARCHIVAL DOCUMENTATION THROUGH ART
In terms of archival documentation, one of the most impressive presentations in Many Wests is the DeLIMITations Portfolio by Marcos Ramírez ERRE and David Taylor (which also is part of the UMFA collection). The series of 48 photographic prints recreate the 1821 border between the U.S. and Mexico, highlighting the realization of why borders always should be viewed as fluid. As Ramírez notes in the artistic statement, “Before this was Mexico or the U.S., this whole land was Native American.” To mark the existing border, 276 stone obelisks were installed, many of them near the end of the 19th century.
In the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty which confirmed the border as it existed in 1821, the U.S. renounced all claims to the land south of the negotiated border. But, the treaty terms did noy hold. Those lands now are known as the states of Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming and Oklahoma.
The 1821 boundary, which was never surveyed or physically marked, is merely a reference on historic maps. The artists installed 47 sheet metal markers to mimic the existing monuments, emphasizing what the border might actually have looked like, had the border points of the treaty been formally recognized. The treaty text also is made available, which reminds viewers about how treaties often are abused or disregarded, negating the supposed senses of mutual trust and good faith during their negotiations.
In the mixed media work Cruzado (Settled In), Sandra C. Fernández’s print features etching, chine collé, thread drawings and blind embossing on paper. The work is a fine complement to others highlighting how events, settlement and colonialism erased, replaced and then repeated the cycle again and again, along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Fernández’s artistic timeline traces the oldest roots of Indigenous communities and documents the evolution of colonial powers through the periods of Spain, Mexico and the U.S. Cruzado is an excellent demonstration of how history repeats itself, especially when the lessons of the past continue to be ignored through events and crises that have and will continue to plague the Southwest region.
Native American artists are highlighted in numerous works throughout the exhibition. Marie Watt (Seneca) created Witness (Quamichan Potlatch 1913) with reclaimed wool blankets, embroidery floss and thread. She used an archival photograph of the 1913 event as the foundation. The history behind this meticulously embroidered representation of a Coast Salish nation’s potlatch is important. Tribal gift-giving ceremonial feats such as these were banned for more than 60 years by Canada and the U.S. While Watt’s fidelity to the photograph is evident, she makes two additions that blend seamlessly with the historical representation. There are figures of individuals with their fists raised in protest and the artist also appears with her two daughters on the right side of the blanket, with the younger child peeking over her mother’s shoulder. The stack of blankets behind the figure emphasizes the generous nature of the potlatch ceremony.
Meanwhile, Enrollment, an oil painting by Ka’ila Farrell-Smith (Klamath Modoc) depicts an androgynous figure, wrapped in a Hudson’s Bay point blanket, after she formally receives her tribal enrollment number as a citizen of the Klamath Tribes. Farrell-Smith’s painting is important for its depiction of tribal enrollment rules, which is just one aspect of ongoing concerns about those who claim Indigenous identity but are eventually revealed to be fraudulent (Pretendians). Many formally recognized Native Americans have been pushing for laws to protect Native artists who are formally enrolled in their respective tribes.
RESTORING VISIBILITY, ERASING INACCURACIES
Several artworks deal with two of the most disturbing events of 20th century history in the American West: widespread testing of nuclear weapons and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. A Japanese American born 13 days after the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, the late Patrick Nagatani combined elements of historical realism and surrealism in his Nuclear Enchantment series of chromogenic prints, for documenting the contaminating impacts of uranium mines in New Mexico on the sovereign lands of Pueblo Indians. The prints, created between 1988 and 1993, were created with elaborate sets, hand coloring, and printing techniques to create composites of images of toxic test sites, schools, atomic monuments and radioactive waste dumps.
From Seattle-born artist Roger Shimomura, American Infamy #2, an acrylic painting, depicts Camp Minidoka in Idaho, where the artist and his family were incarcerated during the war. It’s a stunning work, created with the aesthetics of Japanese Muromachi-era byobu screens, which were predominant six and seven centuries ago. Shimomura incorporates these elements with the stark portrayal of the conditions that the imprisoned families endured in the panopticon design of the camps.
Driving home the widespread ignominy of the incarceration of innocent Japanese Americans is Wendy Maruyama’s Minidoka, from the Tag Project. As a result of her research behind the U.S. government’s order to incarcerate Japanese Americans during WWII, she created sculptures for individual camps from paper, ink, string and thread, comprising paper tags that were printed with the name and ID number of each person who was incarcerated. The tags were recreated from data retrieved from archives. There are more than 9,500 tags in the sculpture representing Camp Minidoka — its scale highlighting the gravity of this particular period in the history of the American West.
There also are historical photographic documentation of Native heritage in New Mexico including Miguel A. Gandert’s digital exhibition prints made from original gelatin silver prints. The subjects are genizaros, who are descendants of detribalized Indians from various tribes—the Utes, Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas, Navajos and Pawnees. Their ancestors, who were forced into indentured servitude by Spanish colonists, took on some Spanish cultural elements while preserving those of their Native heritage. These beliefs have remained intact as they have been passed on from one generation to the next.
From San Antonio, Al Rendón produced a set of prints documenting the performance practices of charros and charras, the Mexican American equestrians who were the historical precedents of American cowboy culture. The collective takeaway from the prints by Rendón and Gandert is the resilience of cultural roots that typically were subverted and misinterpreted as racist stereotypes (for example, the unflattering image of the Mexican bandito in Hollywood westerns).
From the 1950s, the Cowboy and “Indian” Film by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, of Yaqui Indigenous heritage, is a 16mm black-and-white film installation, ingeniously created from hacked up film strips taken from several copies of Winchester ‘73, a 1950 Hollywood western directed by Anthony Mann. He put the strips of film into a medicine bag, which he then shook while singing a war chant. He reassembled the snippets into a video that upends and shatters the cinematic myth of the old western film genre.
Ortiz’s work predates the broader acknowledgment of the problematic stereotypes and lack of authentic representation in Hollywood. The original film, which starred James Stewart, was a financial and critical success, and became part of a campaign to celebrate the antique Winchester rifle featured in the narrative. It was emblematic of the popular appeal of Turner’s Frontier Thesis during the mid-century era. Incidentally, Rock Hudson was cast as a Native American.
Ortiz’s work of Abstract Expressionism at the time was part of the Destructivist movement, with its Dadaist impulses animating the artistic resolve to delegitimize colonialist tropes and modes of cultural expression. Viewed nearly 65 years later, Ortiz’s video becomes more incisive and relevant than ever, especially as the critique of old Hollywood genres has broadened and expanded.
Likewise, María’s Great Expedition by Christina Fernandez is an outstanding example of social history — a visual documentary blend of black-and-white and color snapshots. This work complements the multilayered chronicle that is fortunately more prevalent in contemporary historiography. The subject is the artist’s great-grandmother María González, the first member of her family to migrate to the U.S. from Mexico. Fernandez photographed herself in the guise of her relative and paired these images with stories from her family history placed next to historical accounts of Mexican migration and settlement in the early 20th century.
As well, amplifying the theme of making historically underrepresented communities more visible in the historiography of the West isV. Maldonado’s acrylic painting The Fallen. The artist, who comes from the Michoacán state in Mexico, works from the cultural images of lucha libre wrestlers. There is a burst of freshness in the images, resonating with authenticity and emotional expression that also was found in Cassandro, a film presented at Sundance this year, highlighting Saúl Armendáriz, a gay wrestler who revamped the role of the exótico luchadores as Cassandro.
Another Michoacán artist, Alfredo Arreguín painted Bitterns, an exquisitely balanced blending of the Japanese ukiyo-e (woodblock) art form and the mosaic patterns and originate architecture of his Mexican homeland. The compact-sized heron birds are gracefully composed, the blended result of his Chicano cultural roots and the times when he went to Japan while on leave from his military tour of duty in Korea.
Known partly for their fragile intricacy which has required extraordinary measures of handling during its exhibition tour, Angela Ellsworth’s pair of sunbonnets (Seer Bonnet XI and XII), — made from pearl corsage pins, fabric and steel — represent the complex history of Mormon women during their pioneer days. The sun bonnets are a quintessential artifact of Mormon history and Ellsworth, a fifth-generation Mormon who identifies as a feminist and queer artist, created the bonnets to represent the 35 wives of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Every LDS church president is known as a prophet, seer and revelator. However, in Ellsworth’s expression, the bonnets convey their glimmering effects to remind viewers of the profound roles Mormon women took on, as their community established its roots for good in the Utah territory. The bonnets are part of the UMFA permanent collection. Ellsworth’s bonnets have required special care for each stop on the exhibition tour. An individual who wears welding gloves is the designated traveler to ensure the work stays intact and is not damaged.
Chinese immigrants also have been a huge part of the American West historical chronicles. Mandarin Duck, an oil painting by Hung Liu, who came to the U.S. from China in 1984, is an imposing portrait of Polly Bemis, a Chinese immigrant who lived in Idaho. Bemis was sold as a slave when she came to San Francisco in 1872. While historical details about how she secured her freedom have never been fully verified, she eventually married a saloon owner (Charlie Bemis) in 1894. Her husband’s health was never the same after he was nearly killed while he tried to break up a gambling fight at the bar. But, Polly nursed him back to health and she took on a greater role in managing their affairs. When Bemis secured her right to permanent residency in the States, the couple won their case for a mining claim, becoming among the first people to settle along the Salmon River. She became well known among the pioneers who settled in the area, especially for her enterprise. Her story was the inspiration for the 1991 indie film Thousand Pieces of Gold.
The painting, which shows Bemis wearing her wedding dress from 1894, includes motifs of Mandarin ducks and water lilies as symbols of matrimony. The painting is a tribute to Bemis and her pursuit as an immigrant who found and nourished her own version of the American Dream.
Among free, public events associated with the exhibition at the UMFA include an Artist Talk: David Taylor & Marcos RamÍrez ERRE (April 5, 6:30 p.m.), who are the artists for DeLIMITations and a poetry reading and talk by Paisley Rekdal (April 26, 6 p.m.). Rekdal will read from her latest book West: A Translation, which connects the history between the completion of the transcontinental railroad and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882–1943).
Please check the UMFA online event calendar for updates.
Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke/Crow, born Billings, Montana, 1981), Four Seasons: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer (2006), archival pigment prints, Boise Art Museum Permanent Collection, Collectors Forum Purchase, 2019.