SMoCA's "Re-imagining the West" Features Cowboys, Crosses, and Mushroom Clouds

'Tis the season here in the Valley. Even die-hard Phoenicians flee from summer's suffocating heat to anywhere remotely cooler. And, as sure as the thermometer will register 100 degrees, many Valley museums and galleries, scrounging for funding and patrons in even the best of economic times, dust off and recycle stuff in their collections and inventories. If they do it right, new life can be infused into old work by highlighting it in a wholly different context.

"Re-imagining the West," Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's latest summer exhibition fare, running until August 22, is one of those predictable dust-off-and-recycle shows that pull from the 10-year-old institution's hodgepodge of gifts and acquisitions, together with loans from accommodating artists, collectors, and galleries. I suppose it aims at focusing more critically on the idealized stereotypes that abound in Southwestern art from yesteryear by juxtaposing them with cut-to-the-quick contemporary pieces referencing similar subject matter — in this case, the overwhelmingly grand cultural concept of the Southwest, its endlessly mutating landscapes and its diverse population.

While "Re-imagining" is a fairly good art historical overview of thematic and stylistic concerns that have developed in this region, the exhibition begs for better organization and more in-depth and accessible signage to aid the viewer. And I just wish that SMoCA would have launched "Re-imagining the West" to coincide with Modified Art's "Modified Arts: Looking Back on the Future," which, earlier this year, showcased local art history beginning in the 1930s. But people in Hell want ice water, as my mother always points out.

Museum-goers view 100 Suns, a photographic installation that uses documentary imagery from A-bomb testing in the Nevada desert during the 1950s and '60s.
Peter Bugg
Museum-goers view 100 Suns, a photographic installation that uses documentary imagery from A-bomb testing in the Nevada desert during the 1950s and '60s.

Details

"Re-imagining the West" runs until August 22, 2010 at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 7374 E. 2nd St., Scottsdale. Call 480-874-4666.

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Where, for example, is the basic info about turn-of-the-20th-century plein aire or outdoor landscape painting, a staple of the Old West (and in abundance in "Re-imagining")? Where's the textual "compare and contrast" with contemporary work like Morning After the Rain (1990), Ed Mell's gigantic, stylized landscape canvas of mesas, or more recent work like The American Desert (for Chuck Jones) (2002), Mungo Thomson's animated take on human intervention in untouched desert caused by technological progress, human greed, or plain stupidity?

"Re-imagining" provides a great opportunity to give backstories on many of the iconic Western artists whose work peppers the exhibition but fails to take advantage of the occasion. For example, this would have been the perfect place to explain the radical impact of work featuring Native American subjects by Scottsdale's Fritz Scholder on the national art scenes of the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Even closer to home, a short history of Lon Megargee, Wickenburg cowboy turned artist, would have enriched our visual experience of his work. (Did you know that the Hermosa Inn was built by Megargee in 1930 and was his home and studio, or that he talked Arizona Governor George Hunt into commissioning 15 historic murals for the state Capitol in 1913?)

And someone needed to address the fact that those elegant, stereotypical portraits of romanticized Native Americans taken at the beginning of the 20th century by Edward S. Curtis aren't what they appear to be. It's a known fact that the photographer was excoriated by anthropologists of his day because he often staged or retouched photos to remove evidence of contemporary artifacts (such as alarm clocks) in his study of supposedly vanishing indigenous cultures. How many viewers know that he often paid his subjects to pose in deliberately arranged scenes while dressed in historically inaccurate costumes?

There's a time to keep wall texts short and sweet, and a time to harness them for placing work in meaningful context for museum-goers.

"Re-imagining the West" would have been more memorable had it been edited down to several subjects, rather than trying to encompass the unfathomable whole of Western art history. Sections such as "Icons: Observing Ritual" are gratuitous at best and, at worst, a green light to stuff the show with paintings and prints in SMoCA's collection that feature a cross or crucified Christ without explaining the significance of Roman Catholicism spread by Spanish missionaries from Mexico.

That's not to say there isn't truly remarkable work in SMoCA's summer show. I won't easily forget 100 Suns (2003), Michael Light's haunting montage of pigment prints taken from 1950s and '60s documentary photos of A-bomb tests in the Nevada desert — especially the images of soldiers ducking in a trench or averting their faces against the backdrop of a blinding atomic mushroom cloud. Equally chilling is Killing Is Fun, an illustrated black-and-white letterpress broadside, a collaborative piece by writer Charles Bowden and artist Alice Leora Briggs that deals with the continuing nightmare of gang and drug-related torture and murder in Juarez, Mexico. And, if that piece doesn't give you a shudder of horror, check out the one directly next to it, Leora Briggs' Deadly Sin (or Night Out at the Beautiful Bandit) (2003). Beautifully rendered in classical Renaissance style on lowly scratchboard, it features a brutal bar scene, replete with a drunken, passed-out woman and a satyr-like guy swinging a baby like a lasso over his head.

The introductory wall panel for "Re­imagining" claims that "SMoCA is committed to highlighting cultural context when interpreting, exhibiting, and collecting works of art." Clearly, in this exhibition, it failed to make good on that commitment.

 
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