If you've paid attention to the Autry National Center over its 25-year history, you can't help but notice the continual surprises that accompany its exhibits, shows and programs. The West may have been settled well over a century ago but the Autry offerings consistently take the view that perception and interpretation are ongoing. Alternate and multiple viewpoints have always been a part of its proceedings.
That inclusion serves as a preamble for the Autry's massive new exhibit, "Art of the West," running indefinitely. It manages to tag all of the touchstones of accepted western art and history, yet it's larded with additions and twists that will cause even the most dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast to find something new.
Curator Amy Scott says, "The show can be approached from many different angles, and it can be appreciated on many different levels." Drawing on the formidable Autry holdings and augmented by the Southwest Museum of the American Indian collection, the show uses three main themes: "Religion and Ritual," "Land and Landscape" and "Migration and Movement" as catalysts to a multiple-viewpoint dialectic.
This nonlinear presentation allows for discovery at seemingly every turn. An 18th Century Spanish painting of the martyred San Sebastian in muddy hues sits next to a contemporary John Valadez canvas of a crucified figure, aflame in hot colors. Paul Pletka's "Tears of the Lord" (2005) depicts placid Mexican Indians in folk garb underneath a bleeding wooden Christ. Luis Tapia's carved wooden low-rider is as much a religious icon as automotive fetish object. A rough-hewn carved Alaskan icon shows how faithful John Singletary's glass light box is to the original design.
Thomas Moran's breathtaking landscape "Mountain of the Holy Cross" (1875) resonates with manifest destiny, while an Oglala Sioux buckskin dress contains narrative beadwork. A majestic Bierstadt painting and a Yankton bear claw necklace have more in common than first meet the eye. "Yes," says Scott, a native Oklahoman, "landscapes are something to look at and behold, but the hides, grasses, woods and dyes used in these artifacts come directly from the land."
Urban "sophisticates" may groan at the mention of western art, conceding a place in high culture for Frederick Remington's paintings and sculpture and Georgia O'Keefe's modernist canvases. But early modernist Frank Applegate's dynamically composed Hopi paintings look like they came out of the Bauhaus. Conversely, the show's lone O'Keefe looks right at home in the salon setting of landscape paintings.
Recurring motifs play out in interesting ways. Buffalo hunts are depicted in period paintings, while two hand-carved chairs in a bison design add a touch of surrealism. Commissioned by a moneyed German, they touch on the European fascination with the Old West. George Catlin's Indian paintings were on-the-spot depictions, while an Indian head on a sterling punch bowl or an exquisite 1948 Indian motorcycle all speak of appropriation and nobility in one way or another. A painting of vaqueros roping a bear takes on extra resonance when the intricate hand-tooled leather saddle depicts much the same thing.
No serious discussion of the West can dismiss the influence and confluence of Hollywood. Scott's light-touch approach can barely be discerned: Howard Terpling's academic painting of a Native American hunting party on the precipice of a waterfall looks accurate in every detail. He came to Indian subjects after a career working in the studios.
"My biggest hope for this show," says Scott, who previously taught the history of western art at U.C. Irvine, where she earned her doctorate, "is for people to delve into the deeper implications of these assembled pieces. There's so much to learn here."
The inclusion of the late James Doolin's (1932-2002) panoramic freeway overpass painting shows what the west has become but will always be: For all of the urban congestion, the vast open sky still beckons.
Where: Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles.
More info: (323) 667-2000, theautry.org
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.