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‘Monument Valley’ is a perfect fit for Iowa


Wendy Red Star (American/Crow, born 1981) “#14 Red Top Tramp” from the “White Squaw” Series, 2014, digital print, 11 x 18 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

In her introduction to “Monument Valley,” the Des Moines Art Center’s latest exhibition, curator Laura Burkhalter explains why a show about the history and mythology of a Navajo Tribal Park in Utah and Arizona is a good fit for an Iowa museum. John Wayne, the actor whose work with John Ford popularized Monument Valley around the world, was born in Iowa, and more than a million tourists from all over the world have visited his childhood home in Winterset. Burkhalter reminds us that Buffalo Bill Cody and Wyatt Earp also began their long rides into American history and myth from childhoods in Iowa.

Those three men represent how the destinies of history and myth intermingled in the American West after the Civil War. Cody found fame as a buffalo hunter during the building of the transcontinental railroads. He became more famous in dime novels, an invention created to distract railroad passengers from their fear of being transported at speeds that had been incomprehensible before the railroads. He concluded his career as a showman, taking his Wild West Show to the East Coast and to Europe, becoming a parody of himself. The Robert Altman master film “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” brilliantly recreates the elder Cody’s state of limbo between real life and the mythical Cody (Paul Newman) created by Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster).

Earp, who lived to be 91 during rough times, was a lawman in Kansas and New Mexico before his fame took him to Hollywood, where he consulted on many early western movies and became best friends with Tom Mix and William S. Hart, the original cowboy movie stars. Wayne’s road to Hollywood stardom was more direct. He went from football star to movie star, especially working with Ford who popularized Monument Valley in his films.

So, DMAC’s show is perfectly fit for Iowa. The exhibition straddles the same lines between history and myth as Cody and Earp did. There is a lot of lamenting about what has been lost. John Jota Leanos’ “Destinies Manifest” reveals an angel shepherding western settlers and also the extermination of the buffalo. The latter are shown in summer when they have shed their winter coats, but they look more like they are plague-ridden than natural.

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Doug Aitken’s series “migration” shows wild animals in human settings, like motel rooms and kitchens. Wendy Red Star creates hilarious movie posters modeled after the dime novel covers of E.J. Hunter. Her White Squaw series pokes fun at the absurd depictions of native American women and, particularly, anyone who ever believed in their accuracy.

Kent Monkman’s “Artist and Model” is probably the most popular piece in the show. It shows a model of the artist called Miss Chief Eagle Testikle painting a cowboy posed like a Christian martyr. He is naked except for his hat and boots and jeans pulled down to his ankles. She is painting in the nude, too, except for her stiletto heels and war bonnet. In “The Ford Erections,” Monkman’s four pickups and their drivers pause together by a pristine waterfall meadow at sunset. They are gathered to masturbate together.

Anja Niemi and Catherine Opie muse about the desire to be a cowboy, or something utterly different. Niemi poses herself with her latter ego cowgirl reality. Opie photographs western monuments out of focus, blurring the possibilities of identifying with the alternate reality that has long been the world’s perception of the American West.

Kahlil Joseph searches for the cowboy alter ego in African American cowboys. Jordan Weber uses a comic block to demonstrate the absurdity of manifest destiny as a land grab. Jeremiah Ariaz examines the modern day European wild west festivals, the descendants of Cody. Angela Ellsworth shows Mormon history in bonnet art and Conestoga sculpture. Gina Adams and Sarah Sense use quilting methodology to preserve western history. This show plays through Jan. 12. ♦

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