Book review: Roaring Camp by Susan Lee Johnson

J.D. Borthwick, “Monte in the Mines” (c. 1851)

Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush by Susan Lee Johnson is an extraordinary contribution to scholarship on the California Gold Rush.  The title of the book is a play on the title of the short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Bret Harte and is intended to evoke ideas of the myths tied to the Gold Rush. However, the book is anything but playful: it is an account of a period that was so full of potential for redefining ideas of class, gender, and cultural tolerance, yet the opportunity was lost. The Northern Mines of California are the site of more widely acknowledged Gold Rush narratives; Johnson, however, focuses on the Southern Mines, which were a site of conflicted gender roles due to the mixing of multiple ethnicities and glasses and are comparatively outside of the major history of the Gold Rush. A highly deserving winner of the 2001 Bancroft Prize, Johnson utilizes her position as a New Western historian to persuasively coerce the reader to rethink not only what is acknowledged about the Gold Rush, but also how ethnicity, class and gender influenced notions of social roles even before the advent of postmodernism.  Continue reading


Book review: Print the Legend by Martha Sandweiss

A mid-nineteenth century daguerrotype of Native American lodges.

Print the Legend is an impressive contribution on multiple planes, for Martha Sandweiss not only recounts the complex history of the use of photography in the American West between 1840 and 1890, she also guides both the general reader and historian alike in the process of rethinking how we interpret and utilize photography. She posits two ways to think of how we interpret and use photographs as primary source documents: in history, which requires knowledge “about the circumstances of its making, the photographer’s intent, the public function of the image, the ways in which it was received and understood by contemporary audiences” (p. 9) and through history, in which “we must give attention to the shifting fate of the image—the ways in which it might have moved into archives or attics, museums or scrapbooks, and the ways in which it has been reinterpreted over time” (p. 9). The title of the book is a reference to a quote from the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance, in which the newspaper editor states: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes a fact print the legend” (p. 324). This highlights Sandweiss’s encompassing theme of the difficulty of promoting photography in the face of more mythologized media such as painting and printmaking. Print the Legend is highly marketable to a wide variety of audiences: her prose is eloquent and easy to read, and the book itself, which is printed on high-quality glossy paper, is aesthetically pleasing and can be distributed in multiple types of settings, such as major bookstores and museums. Sandweiss is currently a history professor at Princeton University, but her background as a photography curator at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and as a professor of American Studies allows her to tackle her subject matter with a fresh and unique perspective than she in turn is able to effectively communicate to multiple types of readers.  Continue reading

Book review: Devil’s Bargains by Hal K. Rothman

Historic photo of a Colorado ski resort

Tourism in the American West has been a subject that has been ignored for far too long. Indeed, its last major scholarly treatment occurred in 1957 with Earl Pomeroy’s In Search of the Golden West, and historians since then have been distinctly reticent to tackle the subject for fear of mockery. However, Devil’s Bargains by the late Hal K. Rothman revitalizes the subject in a powerfully written and historically relevant manner. He expands beyond Pomeroy’s look at California and instead looks at much of the trans-Mississippi West, narrowing down his narrative to regions and specific time frames. Rothman argues that tourism is not a passive act that is simply rooted in the desire to take a break from everyday life, but rather a colonial act that transforms the locals who accommodate the tourists as well as the landscape itself. However, in many ways, tourism was and is a necessity for many towns and regions: ascribing these places to a touristic economy is, in essence, a devil’s bargain. Continue reading

Essay review: Else Surely We Shall All Hang Separately: The Politics of Western Women’s History by Virginia Scharff

Poster from the movie “Calamity Jane” (1953) with Doris Day and Howard Keel

History, then, is one word commonly and confusingly used to refer to two things: what happened, and what we say happened. (537)

Apologies for my unusually long absence from the blogosphere, all! The last six days have been filled with preparations for getting to, attending, and returning from a wedding (third of the month for me) in San Diego, which involved a lot of insanely early mornings. Consequently, I didn’t as much done over the last week as I would have liked– exhaustion made sure of that– but I did read three essays over the weekend: “A Minoritarian Feminism? Things to Do with Deleuze and Guattari” by Pelagia Goulimari, “The Gentle Tamers Revisited: New Approaches to the History of Women in the American West” by Joan M. Jensen and Darlis A. Miller (inconsequential aside: this essay was the first PDF I read and highlighted using my GoodReader app on my iPad!), and of course Virginia Scharff’s “Else Surely We Shall All Hang Separately.” I also started reading a book called Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism, and Social Dissent by David Bate, which I will hopefully be able to review tomorrow or Wednesday. Goulimari’s “A Minoritarian Feminism?” was an unnecessarily jargon-y and difficult-to-read essay that is mostly useful as a secondary source (most of the essay was spent critiquing two works by other scholars) and which I don’t feel like reviewing here. Jensen’s and Miller’s “Gentle Tamers Revisited” was referenced a lot in Scharff’s essay, thus I felt compelled to read it for the sake of thoroughness, but again, I don’t feel like it is necessary to write a review for it. Therefore, by process of elimination/preference, I am now going to review the last aforementioned essay. Continue reading

Book review: Western Places, American Myths, ed. Gary J. Hausladen

Peter Goin, “Intersecting Tracks” (1998)

The power and importance of the American West, ambiguous or not, cannot be overstated. Not just a real geographical region, the West is a mythic concept that repeatedly transcends simple historical-geographical description. For Americans, the West is part of our psyche, an essential part of who we are as a people. (Gary J. Hausladen, Introduction)

Western Places, American Myths: How We Think About the West is a fascinating anthology of essays dealing with the American West, with topics ranging from historical geography to regionalism to art history and analyzing both the myths and realities that signify the “West.” Despite the leaps and bounds that contemporary scholarship has made in analyzing the West, this does not seem to have extended outside of academia, meaning that people still look at its history from a white, masculine perspective that glorifies the notion that it is a fundamentally different place from the Midwest and the East Coast. This notion identifies it as a freer, wilder place that in turn verifies larger ideas of individualism and American nationalism, though it is overall seen as distinct from the rest of America. Physically, it is a different place than the East Coast– drier, generally more mountainous, and greater distance between urban centers– but it is also psychologically and historically more complex than it is given credit for. Continue reading

Catalog review: Pacific Standard Time

Ed Ruscha, “Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas” (1963)
(Image from Wmagazine)

I’m not sure if it’s because I was born in 1986 and grew up with the idea that LA was the other major city in the US (along with NYC), but it absolutely shocked the hell out of me when I read that the Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945-1980 was the first time anyone had ever taken a good hard look at the post-war art of Southern California. Not only that, I couldn’t believe that it was the first attempt to distinguish it from East Coast art and its art historical vernacular. In my less informed days, I would not have seen a problem with So Cal art being forcibly adhered to an East Coast standard (because it’s all American art, after all). However, now that I am wiser and more well-read, I can easily see that there are a lot of problems with lumping all post-war American art under one avant-garde flag.

PST was a massive decade-long undertaking that began as an archiving project at the Getty Research Institute. The history of Southern Californian art made in the post-war years was in danger of being lost, so the GRI set out to get everything they could documented. This project turned into an unprecedented series of exhibitions in 60+ museums and cultural institutions throughout the area between Fall 2011 to Spring 2012. Before this study, the LA art scene was believed to have developed as a center after 1980 while the East Coast dominated the post-war years. However, because PST regards Southern California as a center for post-war art that was largely independent of the East Coast, it more or less re-writes the history of Modern art in LA, and of American art in general. It was referenced multiple times in my In Wonderland catalog, as well as in the Westword review for West of Center, but I did not think to read it until my minor advisor suggested I look it up to inform my studies on regionalism and minor history. And am I glad I did, because not only was I able to make correlations with Colorado art history in the ’40s and ’50s, but it gave me a fascinating insight into the different histories of American art. Continue reading

Catalog/essay review: West of Center (MCA Denver)

Clark Richert, Richard Kallweit, JoAnn Bernofsky, Gene Bernofsky, and Charles DeJulio, “The Ultimate Painting” (1966, in front of the Theatre Dome, Drop City – Trinidad, CO)

If naivete and idealism eventually gave way to cynicism and reaction, temporarily falling those utopian dreams, the desire for the unachievable never dies. It provides something to brainstorm about, something to long for, something to work for something that cannot yet be put behind us. -Lucy Lippard (Foreword)

Never before have I been gripped by an indescribable desire to go back in time and visit the ’60s (and early to mid-70s, for that matter). Actually, I rarely ever think to myself, “How cool would it be to go back to the (insert memorable time period)?” Why? Because I love living in 2012: the environment hasn’t quite gone totally to hell yet; major advancements have been made in medicine; and substantial progress has been made for women, the LGBT community, civil rights, etc. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot of work to be done in these latter areas, but seriously, look at history. We’re doing a hell of  a lot better now than we were for centuries. But this exhibition brings back the spirit of the ’60s that I always idealized in my head.

West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977 is yet another exhibition that I missed, and my excuse is the worst yet: I didn’t know it was happening. It was at MCA Denver from November 11, 2011 to February 19, 2012. And I have another embarrassing confession: I’ve never been to MCA Denver. Admittedly, I’m much more of a modern art person than a contemporary person anyway– ironic, considering how much I like living in the here and now, not to mention that I see an enormous amount of contemporary work at my job– but as has been previously alluded, I really, REALLY need to work on my game. Luckily, one of the reviews of the exhibition I read said that the catalog was much more informative than the exhibition, and the exhibition itself was more of a “cultural documentary.”

Moving past my personal musings about time travel and inadequate museum-going, West of Center was a fascinating first attempt at a wide-ranging (but not comprehensive) look at the counterculture born out of the 1960s. The flower-toting, LSD-imbibing, commune-living hippy is the most prominent figure that comes to mind when discussing counterculture, and while counterculture was made up of hippies, one has to be careful to not reduce it to a stereotype. Counterculture, when properly used, is a term used to define a sect of society that “radically disaffiliated” itself from mainstream culture. According to historian Theodore Roszak, counterculture is characterized as “both cultural and political, organized around a ‘personalist style’ and directed toward liberation from the alienating forces of technocratic domination, highlighted… as a form of cultural radicalism wherein personal transformation was embraced as the key to revolution” (xx). It is different from subculture in that subculture  is generally ambivalent to dominant society, making it a subset of mainstream culture. Counterculture sought to instigate social and political change through cultural radicalism. Art was a way of life, ideals were highly utopian, psychedelia was widely embraced, and hierarchy amongst the community (and between genres) disappeared. The true counterculturalist movement did not last long, and has unfortunately been widely disregarded as a legitimate movement worthy of serious scholarship, but it had a lasting impact on contemporary art and scholarship.  Continue reading