Museum  October 7, 2019

Art that Challenges the Mythology of the American West

Courtesy of the artist and Lisa Sette Gallery

Angela Ellsworth (American, born 1964), Seer Bonnet XIX (Flora Ann), 2011. 24,182 pearl corsage pins, fabric, steel, wood.

DES MOINES, IOWA – On October 5, 2019, the Des Moines Art Center opened Monument Valley, an ambitious group exhibition that calls into question the complicated cultural legacy of the American West, confronting issues within the country's past that continue to affect politics, social issues, and attitudes about the natural environment. Not only do the artists represent different races, genders, sexualities and classes, but they also come from different cultural backgrounds and regions across North America. Much of the exhibition’s programming centers around the art and experience of contemporary Indigenous artists. The exhibition runs through January 12, 2020 in the Art Center’s Anna K. Meredith Gallery, and is organized by Curator Laura Burkhalter.

Courtesy of the artist

Wendy Red Star (American/Crow, born 1981), #14 Red Top Tramp from the “White Squaw” Series, 2014. Digital print.

In visiting the tourism website for Monument Valley in Utah, one encounters a brief history of the geologic formation, which highlights its nearness to Anasazi settlements and its appearance in dozens of films. The final pitch reads “Monument Valley isn’t a national park. It’s not even a national monument. But it’s as American as it gets.” Just below this line, a map shows that the Valley sits within lands held by the Diné (or Navajo) Nation. In this version of America, the complicated layers of history remain unsettled, resisting borders drawn on maps and Hollywood romanticism. Taking its title from this simultaneously celebrated and exploited landscape, Monument Valley presents the work of contemporary artists who examine the construct of the American West in folklore and pop culture. The exhibition raises questions about how false histories and stereotyped iconography inform American identity and the debates of contemporary life in the United States. 

Recent events such as conflicts at the U.S./Mexico border, the protests at Standing Rock and the rescinding of protections for National Parks and endangered species, show that the themes raised by the art in this exhibition are exceedingly timely and relevant. Viewing such issues through the lens of the American history and the Western genre, and particularly featuring artists who question these tropes demonstrates Monument Valley’s aspiration to make room in the museum for narratives other than those of the dominant culture. The assembled group of artists takes on an embedded cultural legacy, deconstructing Hollywood versions of cowboys, cowgirls, and “Indians” and reflecting on iconic landscapes often used in pop culture like Monument Valley and Yosemite. They make evident the damage of colonization and dismantle historic stereotypes of Indigenous people, calling out the continued presence of this sort of objectification in contemporary society. In mining the whitewashed narratives of Western lore, they reveal unresolved fronts connected to political, social and environmental issues of today.

Courtesy of the artist and Accola Griefen Fine Art

Gina Adams (American/Ojibwe, born 1965), Treaty with the Choctow, 2019 (detail). Hand-cut calico letters on antique quilt.

The artists brought together for Monument Valley work in a wide range of media, from painting and photography to fiber work and video. Artists confirmed for the exhibition include Gina Adams, Doug Aitken, Angela Ellsworth, Kahlil Joseph, John Jota Leaños, Kent Monkman, Anja Niemi, Catherine Opie, Wendy Red Star, Sarah Sense and Jordan Weber. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully- illustrated catalogue with guest essays by historian Kirsten Pai Buick and artists Gina Adams, John Jota Leoños and Catherine Opie.

About the Des Moines Art Center 
Recognized by international art critics as a world-class museum in the heart of the Midwest, the Des Moines Art Center, an AAM-accredited institution, has amassed an important collection with a major emphasis on contemporary art. The collection’s overriding principle is a representation of artists from the 19th century to the present, each through a seminal work. This accounts for an impressive collection that ranges from Edward Hopper’s Automat to Jasper Johns’ Tennyson, Henri Matisse’s Woman in White, Georgia O’Keeffe’s From the Lake No. 1, Francis Bacon’s Study after Velásquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Bill Viola’s Ascension, and Cecily Brown’s Half-Bind

The Art Center’s physical complex marries with the collection for a totally integrated experience. The collection is housed in three major buildings, each designed by a world-renowned architect—Eliel Saarinen, I. M. Pei, and Richard Meier. With the exception of special events, admission to the museum is free. 

In September 2009, the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park opened in Des Moines’ Western Gateway Park. Philanthropists John and Mary Pappajohn provided funding for and donated 30 sculptures by internationally acclaimed contemporary artists to the Des Moines Art Center. The collection of sculptures by such artists as Ai Weiwei, Louise Bourgeois, Deborah Butterfield, Willem de Kooning, Mark di Suvero, Olafur Eliasson, Keith Haring, Ellsworth Kelly, Yayoi Kusama, Jaume Plensa, Richard Serra, and Joel Shapiro is the most significant donation of artwork to the Art Center in a single gift in the museum’s history. The Pappajohn Sculpture Park is a collaboration of the Pappajohns, the City of Des Moines, the Des Moines Art Center, and numerous corporate and private donors.

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