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Savoring the art of the West

New show at the Autry uses depicts the West as it was and remains.

June 13, 2013|By Kirk Silsbee
  • David Levinthal (United States, born 1949), "Untitled" from Wild West Series, 1987-1989.
David Levinthal (United States, born 1949), "Untitled"… (Courtesy of the…)

If you've paid attention to the Autry National Center over its 25-year history, you can't help but notice the continual surprises that accompany its exhibits, shows and programs. The West may have been settled well over a century ago but the Autry offerings consistently take the view that perception and interpretation are ongoing. Alternate and multiple viewpoints have always been a part of its proceedings.

That inclusion serves as a preamble for the Autry's massive new exhibit, "Art of the West," running indefinitely. It manages to tag all of the touchstones of accepted western art and history, yet it's larded with additions and twists that will cause even the most dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast to find something new.

Curator Amy Scott says, "The show can be approached from many different angles, and it can be appreciated on many different levels." Drawing on the formidable Autry holdings and augmented by the Southwest Museum of the American Indian collection, the show uses three main themes: "Religion and Ritual," "Land and Landscape" and "Migration and Movement" as catalysts to a multiple-viewpoint dialectic.

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This nonlinear presentation allows for discovery at seemingly every turn. An 18th Century Spanish painting of the martyred San Sebastian in muddy hues sits next to a contemporary John Valadez canvas of a crucified figure, aflame in hot colors. Paul Pletka's "Tears of the Lord" (2005) depicts placid Mexican Indians in folk garb underneath a bleeding wooden Christ. Luis Tapia's carved wooden low-rider is as much a religious icon as automotive fetish object. A rough-hewn carved Alaskan icon shows how faithful John Singletary's glass light box is to the original design.

Thomas Moran's breathtaking landscape "Mountain of the Holy Cross" (1875) resonates with manifest destiny, while an Oglala Sioux buckskin dress contains narrative beadwork. A majestic Bierstadt painting and a Yankton bear claw necklace have more in common than first meet the eye. "Yes," says Scott, a native Oklahoman, "landscapes are something to look at and behold, but the hides, grasses, woods and dyes used in these artifacts come directly from the land."

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