The University of Arizona Museum of Art’s current exhibit isn’t just a collection of impressive art.
“Changing Views: Queering U.S. Landscapes” is an attempt to challenge our perceptions of modern landscapes, says curator John-Michael Warner.
The exhibit, featuring 44 landscape artworks from the 19th and 20th centuries, is arranged in a salon-style installation. The works prompt viewers to explore the evolution of U.S. lands through three primary lenses: the wilderness, industrialization and the manly nation — the American west.
Contemporary and historical pieces — most from the UAMA’s permanent collection — contrast one another throughout the exhibit, showing how nature still thrives amid the tests of human economical, political and environmental influence.
“This is the depiction of something that is untouched and is the new Eden that was the Americas,” says Warner, as he walked through the exhibit recently.
Pieces include Thomas Moran’s 1875 chromolithograph, “The Mosquito Trail, Rocky Mountains of Colorado.” The piece is typical of Moran’s expansive landscapes. The snow-drenched mountains reach up to a gray sky as a man and his horse look miniscule compared to the vast terrain they are trekking. Below the Moran is Vija Celmins’ 1971 lithograph “Desert,” a close-up view of a barren, rocky desert ground.
“Here is Moran, who recognizes his duty to try and colonize the land, but now we are reminded that in its rawest form it’s dirt and rock,” Warner says.
The exhibit moves from the frontier and westward advancement into the post-Civil War industrialization era. Robert McCall’s 1982 “Sky Castle over Arizona” makes the transition between the two sections. The graphic features a spaceship hovering in a blue and pink pastel sky over red Arizona mountains, encompassing the theme of space exploration that is common of McCall’s artwork. “Much like Moran trying to conquer the Rocky Mountains, this is a more modern interpretation of taking over land,” Warner says.
Another piece showing the industrial transformation is Alexandre Hogue’s 1944 oil, “Avalanche by Wind,” displaying deserted train tracks — windswept by golden sand — running parallel to telephone lines.
“This shows us that no matter how hard we try to control the landscape, the earth will still blow over the railroad tracks,” Warner says.
Next to “Avalanche by Wind” sits Richard Dibenkorn’s 1954 oil, “Berkley #19.” The piece is splashed with yellows, streaked with blues, accented with greens and reds. While the painting is more abstract than others in the exhibit, the colors mirror those in surrounding landscape works.
The Manly Nation
The final section displays a more common interpretation of the Midwest as it was conquered by pioneers and settlers. Most of the pieces follow a masculine theme. Frederic Remington’s 1900 black and white oil “The Drought in the Southwest: Cattlemen Warning Sheep-Herders Away from Their Water” shows stately cattlemen on horseback, fending off herders and their sheep. “This shows manly ideals and manly depictions of the state of the land,” Warner says.
All of the art within the exhibit is centered around Alan Sonfist’s 1985 installation, “Natural Cultural Landscape.” On the wall is a canvas map of the U.S.; pinpoints on the map indicate sites where human-related incidents have damaged the land and oceans. Those incidents are then reflected onto a second U.S. map laid out in tiles on the floor in front of the wall piece. On the tiles are actual rocks, wood, seeds and vegetation from the damaged sites.
“The frontier isn’t just the old American West,” says Warner. “The frontier is space like the ocean floor or the polar caps. It is shaped by politics, culture and economics. … It’s not just about something that was in the past, it’s very contemporary.”