With a video, an app and some wall texts, Tacoma Art Museum has recently begun the long journey of expanding the stereotypical Western art vision of its new Haub galleries into something that speaks to both contemporary life and the reality behind the Western myth. Mary Lucier’s video installation “The Plains of Sweet Regret” in the upper Weyerhaeuser gallery, Marie Watt’s “Blanket Stories” app and a handful of local Native Americans responses in the Haub wing itself combine to offer three different ways to look at — and think about — our perceptions of the West.
In “The Plains of Sweet Regret,” video artist Lucier does, in a way, what Rosa Bonheur, Albert Bierstadt, John Clymer and many others did in the 19th- and 20th-century Haub wing paintings — she captures a dying society through art and, in the process, romanticizes it. The difference, though, is that Lucier, equipped with contemporary cameras and an eye that refuses to shy away from the difficult, romanticizes the North Dakota plains people with the very things that symbolize their fading — broken boards, fallen cowboys, empty streets. With five giant projections around the walls of TAM’s largest gallery (and scattered vintage school chairs to watch them from — a nice touch) Lucier (commissioned in 2004 by the North Dakota Museum of Art) combines a rotating montage of Dakota imagery with the slightly eerie, slightly soppy soundscape of composer Earl Howard to re-create, as best one could, the experience not just of being in rural North Dakota but also being inside its memories, history and pain.
Beginning with faded gray text (“grasses” and “wary hearts”) over white , the video moves into stills of endless landscapes, flat and grassy, their roads disappearing into the horizon. Buildings stand beautiful yet empty — a church, a barn, a house — traces of snow line abandoned yards while a haunted minor-key melody whistles through major-key synthetic string chords. Individually (you’ll want to sit in a corner, where you can see most screens) the projections move through tattered, empty interiors — peeling paint, ripped books. The techniques (fade-ins and outs, cross-fades, superimposed pans) don’t distract; in fact they add to the experience, with different angles of a single discarded trophy or empty yard diving you deep into the moment. People are few and far between: a stout, resigned farmer checking his herd, a showgirl primping. Astoundingly, we see a calf being born, plopping into dirty hay inside its white membrane before emerging, dripping and shaky and wide-eyed.
But then Lucier moves into a rodeo, and it’s here that things get a bit tiresome. Slow-motion shots blur a cowboy as he tries desperately to stay on; in the background George Strait sings “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” the music as blurred and squeezed out with string chords as the visuals. Soon the bulls and men grow double, with a photo booth kind of mirror shot that expands and contracts like a woman giving birth. It’s symbolic for a short time but grows old quickly.
Yet Lucier, one of video art’s pioneers, has created something that echoes many of the nostalgic themes of Western art without the sentimentality. Like a big novel condensed into 20 minutes of viewing, “The Plains of Sweet Regret” is a poetic homage to a life that’s now as much poignant memory and history as actuality.
Slightly less sweeping, but far more personal, is Marie Watt’s “Blanket Stories” app. Created in conjunction with her sculpture “Blanket Stories: Transportation Object, Generous Ones, Trek,” which arches like a tower of blue tarps against the front wall of the Haub wing, the app tells the stories behind each of the blankets that were cast in bronze to make the sculpture. Donated by the Tacoma community earlier this year, the blankets summarize Watt’s communal approach to making art. Using a strong symbol of Native American community and identity (Watt has both Wyoming rancher and Seneca Nation heritage), Watt shows that the blanket still symbolizes, for all of us, the deepest human feelings of love, hope, fear and loss.
But the way she shows this is highly contemporary. A newly created app (available on the museum’s website) allows you to browse each of the 306 blankets immortalized in the sculpture, reading the story told by its donor and seeing a photo of the original blanket.
Ryan Branchini tells how, as a military kid, his “Simpsons” sleeping bag connected him to his American home and gave him courage. Liz Lufkin explains how her plain cream wool blanket symbolizes the thriftiness handed down to her by her parents. Hollan Nichols’ shell design quilt was made by her half-Cherokee great great grandmother. There are blankets in memoriam, blankets from wars, blankets from good times and bad. And by giving voice to the blankets’ owners, Watt is changing the art narrative that dominates 19th-century work such as the Haub collection — that of a single perspective which influences cultural thinking.
NATIVE VOICES ON THE WALL
The third take on Western art is buried within the Haub galleries themselves: a small group of Native Americans who speak via wall texts on certain works in the collection. Haub curator Laura Fry admits that many of the works that depict Native Americans are “problematic” and need unpacking: They mythologize rather than portray reality, they romanticize rather than decry white destruction of Native American society, they scoop together all tribes under the same stereotypical symbols, and they paint Native American leaders in European art trappings as if thereby granting them authority.
Acknowledging this, TAM paid Haub fellow Asia Tail to gather Native American viewpoints on these works — some historical, some contemporary and local. The resulting quotes sit underneath the regular explanatory wall texts, and if you look for these words, you’ll build a very different way of looking at Western art.
The most powerful of all of these viewpoints is tucked away under John Nieto’s iridescent painting of a coyote, by the wing’s back door in the miscellaneous “education” section. In it, Veronica Tiller (Jicarilla Apache) points out, in no uncertain terms, the elephant in the room of this $20 million donation and collection: That “historical perceptions of Native Americans, all the stereotypical images conveyed by history books, have had a major impact on the way we have been perceived by other Americans. We are still seen as dependent people.”
Apart from Nieto and Kevin Red Star, the vision of the West in the Haub galleries is mostly that of white artists, many with those same “historical perceptions.” Tiller’s words — that Native Americans “must write our own history and stories,” should be emblazoned over the doors of the Haub wing. Until then, at least we have wall quotes.