In Indian Tree, a 1994 oil and mixed media work by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a figure, composed of whites, greens, blues and a cotton candy pink, nearly jumps to the front of the painting.
After the shock of color subsides, images in the background of the canvas slowly come into focus: a cartoon bear, a blank coloring-book page depicting a Native American young woman, newspaper and magazine clippings and other ephemera, obscured by drips and brushstrokes.
Smith’s work reveals its many layers only after careful, prolonged study. The same is true for American West: Vision and Revision, the exhibit at Elkhart’s Midwest Museum of American Art. In this exhibit, which runs through September, the museum pulls from its permanent collection to consider a behemoth, complex topic: how the American West has been interpreted, and re-interpreted, by a range of artists over time.
The exhibit’s title functions as a double entendre — not only does the exhibit “revision” the topic of the American West, it also plays a role in the museum’s “rebranding of our permanent collection as the story of American art,” curator Brian Byrn says.
He encourages viewers to view this new exhibit as an extension of the permanent American West exhibition on the museum’s first floor, which features additional works from George Catlin and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.
In the intimate gallery upstairs, Smith’s Indian Tree stands out for her characteristic blend of political commentary and ironic wit. A member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation in Montana, Smith is one of the premier Native American artists working in the U.S. whose collages, cartoons, pictographs, text and other images “deal with contemporary Native American issues,” Byrn says. These issues range from the education and the representation of Native Americans in pop culture to environmental issues and feminism.
Anne Coe’s Greed, a detailed landscape painting with a cascading river in the background, warrants attention as well.
“What Coe’s talking about in Greed is water rights,” Byrn says. “You see the backdrop of water corralled by the Hoover Dam, and you see it breaking and spilling over. This is all a conversation about nature and the West.”
Hopi Indian katsina figures, also known as kachina dolls, appear in the exhibit in great number. The museum owns 20 of the traditional dolls, which are carved to resemble Hopi kachinas — supernatural beings. A few of the dolls date back to as early as the 1930s, Byrn says.
Hanging a few feet from the display of kachina dolls, large landscapes such as Gerry Metz’s Gros Ventre Camp and Bruce Kimberling’s New Mexico Landscape evoke wonder through their emphasis on lush natural beauty and grandeur. In the same stroke, Metz’s depiction of European settlers, framed against the backdrop of a Native American campground, calls to mind America’s violent and oft-romanticized colonial past.
For many visitors, the exhibit might prompt more questions than answers. The wall text and item information cards do little to contextualize or facilitate connections between the diverse and wide-ranging collection of works.
Byrn says he chose to leave out didactic information from the walls and “leave it up to the viewer.” He notes that weekly gallery talks at the museum offer curators the chance to expand on the themes raised in the exhibit and allow curious visitors to learn more about the complex cultural history of the American West.
“For the general visitor, I would hope that they can make some discoveries on their own — but staff is always available to answer questions,” he says.
“That being said,” he adds, “What better way to metaphorically re-imagine the West but to travel out there and discover something for yourself?”