Arts & Culture

Review: Tacoma Art Museum fails to get past Western art’s ‘cowboys-and-Indians’ stereotypes

Fred Oldfield’s “Cow Camp at McCormick Meadows” from Tacoma Art Museum’s “Northwest Cowboys in Art.”
Fred Oldfield’s “Cow Camp at McCormick Meadows” from Tacoma Art Museum’s “Northwest Cowboys in Art.” Courtesy

It’s taken a year, but Tacoma Art Museum is finally tackling in depth the unpleasant fact that most of its donated Western American art wing is full of stereotypes. Despairing Native Americans in headdresses (whether culturally correct or not), white cowboys on rearing horses, a Eurocentric view of a supposedly disappearing New World people — it’s all there in the Haub wing.

But while the stereotypes and inaccuracies were acknowledged last November, and addressed somewhat in small wall text responses from actual Native Americans, it’s only been since November that these issues have become visible: art on the wall. Augmented with loans and non-Haub items, two rooms of the wing are now occupied by “(Re)Presenting Native Americans” and “Northwest Cowboys in Art,” a combination that tries to broaden out the cowboys-and-Indians caricature but doesn’t go nearly far enough.

In the first middle gallery, “(Re)Presenting Native Americans” seems at first blush to jettison the Euro-styled chiefs of Elbridge Burbank and Henry Inman for art by actual Native Americans that talks about their culture in vibrant color and contemporary techniques. The signature piece is John Nieto’s “Plains Warrior with Breastplate,” a 1998 reimagining of portraiture pulling from Gaugin’s saturated hues, Matisse’s flowing flat lines and an in-your-face expression that gives full power back to the subject rather than the (nonnative) viewer.

Walk around the small gallery and the 19th century narrative of a romantic, misty West peopled by a dying-yet-colorful race is interrupted by artists like Kevin Red Star, whose harsh-lit portraits combine the literal (a warrior with shield) and spiritual (a halo of horses in a burst of fierce white light); or Bill Schenk’s pop-culture landscape that nevertheless captures a working woman who’s grittily real. James Lavadour, in “Dreaming of Whirlwinds” and “Release the Sun,” grids up the landscape into an homage to the ochre dust of Eastern Oregon, with people floating like etched dreams or memories. Marie Watt’s “Omphalos” echoes abstractly her work with blankets as symbols.

All this is good. But do some math and you’ll realize that native artists account for only half of the show’s 16 works. Yes, the others — mostly from the Haub collection — are dotted with text responses: everything from Jason Lujan’s rather naïve comment that Irving Couse’s “Music of the Waters,” so deliberately mythologizing that it’s almost a caricature, is “just a really good painting” all the way to Asia Tail’s succinct observation that the native art narrative has to stop being about loss.

But art museums are primarily there to tell stories visually, and in “(Re)Presenting Native Americans” those visuals are as much ignorant white as articulate Native American. Moreover, the Native American experience here is, as Tail requested, all positive. The courage to show suffering, problems and violence — so disturbingly present upstairs in “Art AIDS America” — is simply not here. The story of post-colonial Native America is not all proud warriors and smiles, and to “re-present” that story as a glossy continuum from romantic flute players to Day-Glo feathers is to miss a crucial part of the tale.

In the next gallery, TAM tackles cowboys. Again, the first pairing you see makes the intent clear: Alexander Proctor’s 1915 bronze buckaroo, the essence of olden-day-cowboy image, next to a photo of Puyallup cowboy artist Fred Oldfield painting one of the murals he’s known for. It’s certainly nice to see Oldfield recognized by the museum, with no less than four works showcasing his daubed landscapes shot through with white-golden summer light. Other works broaden out the cowboy spectrum, like C.S. Price’s “Cowboys at Moonlight,” which inverts the sunny, John Clymer magazine-cover image to create a hushed, watchful atmosphere where men and horses blend into the same ochre brushstrokes in a dim olive mist. Some pay homage to the horse, like Deborah Butterfield’s inquisitive sculpture of welded steel; others are simply beautiful paintings, like Theodore Waddell’s misty Montana mountains.

The trouble is, this exhibition purports to show us that Northwest cowboy life includes “a wide range of diverse cultures, livelihoods and ways of life,” according to the wall text. With a couple of ambiguous exceptions, all of the cowboys portrayed are white men, most of them living exactly the kind of rugged, romanticized existence that that the wall texts say wasn’t typical. So where are the black cowboys? Native Americans? Women? Again, this show tells only part of the story.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

“(Re)Presenting Native Americans” and “Northwest Cowboys in Art”

Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays through May.

Admission: $14 adult; $12 senior, student and military; free for 5 and younger and from 5-8 p.m. on the third Thursdays of each month.

Also: These two shows run in conjunction with “Saddles, Spurs and Quirts” and “Artists Drawn to the West” in the Haub Wing.

Information: 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org.

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