Way Out West
Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill
A light-drenched view of the Virgin Canyon by Hudson River School painter Thomas Moran is the first thing you see upon walking into the Ackland’s new exhibit, Way Out West, which consists of more than twenty paintings newly acquired from the collection of Hugh A. McAllister and almost sixty from the Ackland’s collection.
In the first part of the exhibit, “Virgin River, Utah” is shown alongside several remarkable studies by Albert Bierstadt and other late-nineteenth-century landscape artists. Moran’s Edenic depiction of the canyon is majestic in the most providential sense of the word: Rocky outcroppings frame a canyon suffused by pink light. Standing in front of it, it’s hard not to ask how a place that beautiful can possibly exist.
The answer, it turns out, is that it likely doesn’t. Hudson River School artists were famously loose when it came to realism, crafting composite scenes from different landscape studies and filling in the gaps with their own imaginations—painting the world, in other words, that they wanted to see. “Virgin River” is likely one such composite, a radiantly pristine vision of the American West. In a contemporary age where we’re rightfully wary of curated content and of whether anything put in front of us resembles reality, Moran and Bierstadt’s paintings remind us that false fronts are all part of a grand American tradition—in this case, one that propelled the displacement and genocide of Native American populations.
Way Out West is divided into four sections; the next three expand and complicate that first glimpse. “The Collectors Eye” contains paintings from McCallister’s collection, including several contemporary landscapes. Wilson Hurley’s 1971 panorama of clouds sweeping across the horizon, “Sunset on the Rio Puerco,” is particularly arresting.
The first half of the exhibit is mostly landscapes; the second half, made up of sections “Encounter and Exchange” and “Abstraction and Transformation,” begins to include signs of life, including numerous works by Native American artists drawn from the Ackland’s collection. There are the early-twentieth-century pen, ink, and watercolor drawings of Alfonso Roybal and Abel Sanchez; numerous earthenware works by unknown artists; and “The Three Graces,” the Seminole, Muskogee, and Diné (Navajo) artist Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie’s brightly-colored portrait of three women. Larry McNeil’s stunning color lithograph, “Diacritical Formline,” is perhaps the standout piece.
In the next room, it’s thrilling to see Gary Winogrand and Robert Adams photographs up close, as well as a signature Dorothea Lange. The last painting in the exhibit is Richard Misrach’s “Submerged Gazebo, Salton Sea” (1984), which depicts a ghostly vacation town flooded by toxic fertilizer runoff. Like Moran’s canyon, it’s bathed in a hazy, almost otherworldly light, although the focal point of this scene is a gazebo overtaken by flooding and not the butte of a mountain. Grim, perhaps, but it feels like a suggestion of what’s to come, and an appropriate close to a show about a part of the country that has been particularly shrouded and corrupted by American mythology.
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