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
(Source)

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: Regionalism and the Humanities, eds. Timothy R. Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz

Grant Wood, “American Gothic” (1930)
(Source)

[Regionalism] has been a revolt against cultural nationalism– that is, the tendency of artists to ignore or deny the fact that there are important differences, psychologically and otherwise, between the different regions of America. But this does not mean that Regionalism, in turn, advocates a concentration on local peculiarities; such an approach results in anecdotalism and local color. -Grant Wood (177)

Regionalism and the Humanities is (yet another) anthology of essays, which was compiled from papers selected after a 2003 national conference of the Consortium of Regional Humanities Centers. The conference– and subsequently this book– confronted a big issue: in a world that is increasingly becoming homogenized and standardized by globalization, regionalism is simultaneously experiencing a resurgence of interest and risking decline due to (literally) larger postmodern issues and the ever-shrinking nature of diversity due to phenomena such as the internet. It is acknowledged that this simultaneous decline and revival seems paradoxical, and it is stressed that one needs to think about its different political, social, economic, and aesthetic purposes. Different terms are thrown about and defined in the introduction– place, landscape, regionalism/regionalist, local/localism, regional identity– which help illuminate the various aspects of regionalism and reveal it to be more complex than often regarded. Regionalism was once viewed as a reaction against modern forces, but it is now seen as a more aggressive endeavor to make a claim for the importance of place and space (as opposed to other postmodern issues: gender, race, ethnicity, class, demography, and other cultural and physical distinctions). Place and space are more humanist and individualist, seeking to help us understand ourselves and the human experience. This is not to say that postmodernism cannot acknowledge regionalism at all– although it should be noted that there is no formal redefinition– and if we look at regions as fluid and ever-changing, regionalism can fit into the postmodern discussion. Continue reading

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

Peter Goin, “Intersecting Tracks” (1998)
(Source)

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/essay review: American Women Modernists (BYU)

Wanda Gag, “Moonlight” (1926)
(Source)

Thus it could be argued that while modernism theoretically protected the values of individuals, those individuals were required to be of a particular race and class in order for society to reach its pure objectives. While modernism theoretically protected the expression of an individual, that expression would only be accepted if it supported the prevailing social march. And while individualism was the source of style and substance in art, it was often only recognized if it was in accordance with the prevailing practice or the emerging form that was its contradiction. (Campbell B. Gray, Preface)

Before I started reading American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945, I was a little appalled that the title of the catalog seemed to imply that some dude named Robert was the sole influence in the artistic careers of a number of women, or that their success was completely dependent on him. However, as soon as I saw that this catalog was published in 2005, I realized that there is no way that the scholarship included would paint such a picture (especially Erika Doss, who once called out someone I know on a particularly crass joke about finding a penny versus caring about women’s basketball). While Robert Henri is ultimately at the heart of this catalog, since the women artists discussed/exhibited were his students, it is more about how women and Henri’s beliefs about true modernism changed the course of modern American art history.  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

Delusions about Denver

While I was reading West of Center (you can see my post here) and doing further research into reviews of the exhibition, I came across this review in Westword by Colorado-phile Michael Paglia. He quoted art critic David Hickey’s scathing response to the show: “It’s corny... It’s the kind of thing Denver would do. They would do Mountain Standard Time.” He is of course referencing the seminal Pacific Standard Time exhibitions (the catalog of which will be read and reviewed by me this weekend), which began exhibiting in 2011 and proposed that the West Coast (specifically Southern California) was never inferior to the East Coast (specifically New York City) which was long regarded as the center of the avant-garde in America. In a way, PST is almost re-writing history, and it is being widely accepted because it is difficult to deny that California is not a center in its own right. However, Hickey is blatantly stating that Denver– a peripheral, regional area– cannot possibly attempt the same sort of re-write because we just don’t matter enough.

I’m going to be blunt here: David Hickey, you are an ignorant a**hole.

Dan Ostermiller, “Scottish Cow and Calf” (2001)
(Photo from Blaine Harrington Photography)

Denver– and the whole of Colorado, really– is always being made out to be some po-dunk hick town, and the stereotype is being reinforced by many of our own inhabitants. For example, in 2006, the former Denver Art Museum director, Lewis Sharp, made the following comment in The Denver Post regarding the giant bronze “Scottish Cow and Calf” by Dan Ostermiller: “Yeah, we’re a cow town. But there are artists working in a representational manner who are creating works of art of artistic merit, and to embrace that in the broader community of public art gets right back to offering a variety of experiences.” While he is sort of trying to break the Denver stereotype with this statement, he is simultaneously reminding everyone that, artistically, we’re still behind the ball.

Colorado art is constantly seen as subpar and irrelevant in the grand scheme of art history. My own proctor for my comps, who I should mention is NOT my thesis advisor, tried to talk me out of my thesis topic, asking that I do something a little more “traditional.” To support this, he said that too many grad students end up doing stuff on local topics because they are afraid of going outside of their comfort zone. I rebutted by saying that I am interested in exploring why Colorado art “doesn’t matter” outside of the state and rattled off the concepts of regionalism, minor history, post-structuralism, and post-modernism to back up my stance.

It is with this background in mind that I am going to take this opportunity to break many of the myths and over-exaggerated stereotypes about Denver and Colorado at large. I am going to start with art and expand outwards. Not everything is going to be covered, and I am speaking largely from my own perspective. Fellow Coloradans are welcome to (nicely) refute my views. 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