Defining the West: 200 Years of American Imagery

Date June 4, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Author Richard Tobin

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


The American West is an ambitious theme for an art museum, much less a commercial gallery. That is evident from the fact that Gerald Peters Gallery gave virtually all of its exhibition space to Defining the West: 200 Years of American Imagery. It should be said at the start that the show falls far short of any claims by its title to "define"€ what it is about the West that maintains its hold, however tenuous, on the American imagination. The imagery is limited to selections from the gallery's own inventory of works dealing with the American West from the early nineteenth century to the present. And there is no published catalog to provide historical and cultural contexts requisite to any critical interpretation-which in fairness is not requisite for a commercial gallery. That said, few curators would fault the conception behind the show and its effective display throughout the gallery. The works-mostly paintings, some sculpture-are assigned to particular areas addressing key aspects of the West's history, hype, and myth, and how we maintain them: themes of exploration, high-desert landscape, wildlife, art colonies, nature photography, and the living legacy of its Native peoples.

But if the show does not advance any particular view of the West, its wide range of Western subjects and themes recorded by artists over time offers critical insight into the motives, aspirations, and underlying assumptions driving the settlement of the West by an expanding nation and its restless people. Perhaps what unifies the visitor's experience of the show is a tension that its images unwittingly evoke between romance and reality, between history and myth. That tension is sustained by a profound sense of irony, which may in the end be comic relief to the tragic consequences of how the West was won.

In this age of climate change and global warming almost any theme on the American West has to be marked by irony. The West's timeless vistas increasingly recede before the beckoning call of the open road. Its fragile ecosystem depends upon the integrity of vast, at-risk natural treasures (read "resources"€). Perhaps the one redeeming irony today is the imperative facing all of the West's vying constituencies to embrace a long-term strategy that preserves its ecosystem.

An early-nineteenth-century pencil-and-ink study by John Neagle portrays a stoic Pawnee Chief, Iskatupee. He wears a medallion bearing the image of President James Madison, who as Jefferson's Secretary of State effected the Louisiana Purchase from France, doubling the size of the United States by extending it through the Western states as far as the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. Viewing the medallion, I was reminded of the account by the Roman historian Tacitus of a British chieftain's judgment on Rome's incursions westward under the guise of the Pax Romana: "Where they make a wasteland, they call it peace."€ That's irony.