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.