Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Quest for the West at the Eiteljorn Museum

P.A. Nisbet

‘Quest for the West’ at the Eiteljorn Museum, through Oct. 7

Like the visual arts of the totalitarian regimes of the last century, ‘Western art’ is like the pre-modern artworlds – i.e. it works to establish social values and meaning rather than to critique or undermine them. It’s also an artworld unto itself, with it’s own collectors and a dozen museums, several of which, like the Eiteljorn in Indianpolis, cultivate the genre with annual exhibitions of new work. Every year, 50 artists are chosen by the Eiteljorn, and about 150 paintings and sculptures put up for show and sale.

The Eiteljorn’s annual show is distinguished by narrative and scenery meant to be uplifting with the simple and direct wholesomeness of an elementary school text book. It offers fantasies of hearty pioneers/cowboys and cute Indians that is too shopworn and politically incorrect for mainstream galleries. But it does reflect a living ideology of freedom, opportunity, and individuality that competes quite successfully against the nominalism, alienation, and self absorption of the contemporary artworld for the domination of American life. Occasionally, there is some sense of the artists’ personalities or how each one feels about specific people and places.. But that kind of work can best be found across the hallway, in the Eiteljorn’s excellent collection of Georgia O’Keefe and the early 20th C. Taos school.

Most of the paintings in the Quest show seem to be follow the study of photographs, since there’s a cold, dry, flatness and the feeling that the artists were manipulating pixels rather than paint. While the sculptors, in the tradition of Frederick Remington, mostly focus on a broken, highly descriptive surface rather than the qualities of mass and space found in both modern and ancient traditions. And yet, there’s no doubting the extraordinary skill as these artists maneuver like Olympic gymnasts through the complexities required by their subject matter. The cinematic American West is certainly there in all its bronco busting detail, but unlike the pioneers they depict, the artists don’t seem to be breaking new ground or taking big risks. The pieces reflect the pleasant ambience of an upscale shopping mall or corporate office rather than a hard-scrabble frontier.

Turning his back on both contemporary fantasy as well as reality, P.A. Nisbet was my favorite artist in the show, as he recreated the effects of 19th C. landscape, including the infinite, spacious vistas introduced by English Romantics like John Martin. The eerie, obsessive perfection of Mikel Donahue’s photo based cowboy genre scenes cannot be ignored, either. Every year there’s at least a few pieces that deserve to be moved across the hall into the permanent collection, but most of them lack aesthetic intensity. It’s too bad that ‘Western Art’ seems to be the only art game in town that tries to reach beyond the personal to present positive and convincing American ideals.