The Wyoming Arts Council Visual Art Fellowship is the most prestigious award given by the state in recognition of an individual’s artistic excellence. It’s granted to contemporary Wyoming artists whose works are of interest to audiences beyond the state’s boundaries and who have produced one or more cohesive and articulate bodies of work.
This means they have overcome the obstacles of finding studio time, adequate income and networking opportunities critical to being a professional artist.The fellowship addresses challenges that, while not unique to Wyoming artists, are compounded by isolation and a lack of industrial, commercial, and cultural diversity.
Not surprisingly, you will find earlier articles in Studio Wyoming Review, and elsewhere online, that feature nearly every one of the artists in this exhibit. Shown together at the UW Art Museum, their work generated a stimulating conversation. What is a Wyoming creative life and artist’s journey all about? In this, as in many other Fellowship shows, the common threads concern people and nature, together or separately.
Margaret K. Haydon (Laramie), Professor of Ceramics at UW, is “fascinated by ongoing changes in habitat and species demographics.” Her research has included field work alongside fish biologists and naturalists in the U.S., Canada, and Hungary, and her artwork communicates her discoveries and passion for the natural world. In this exhibit, Haydon displayed four cast and sculpted ceramic works in white porcelain. For the most part, these are spare arrangements of one or two natural forms, and surface treatments range from bare, chalky fired clay to opaque paint.
In the expansive and fence-like “Paradise Lost,” matte white aspen trees range in a zig-zag design across the wall. Most of the white trunks are garnished with black graffiti, unnerving aspen bark “eyes,” bats, bees, or shiny sturgeons. This pale arrangement is punctuated at intervals by tree trunks painted black to appear burnt. Several charred trees grouped together form a concluding paragraph at far right. Also sheltering among the aspens are flame-like shapes in blue or tan. Like any fable with characters from the nonhuman world (stand-ins for ourselves), this piece is both enchanting and distressing. Bees, bats, sturgeons, floods, and fires are noted harbingers of the radical shift in our global environment. Those dreaded burning trees are especially on our minds lately. If Haydon’s message is dire, the delicacy of her technique is captivating.
Well-known high-altitude landscape painter Joe Arnold (Laramie) has for decades pursued a unique form of traditional 19th-century plein air landscape painting and drawing to inform his large-scale studio paintings. Countless artists today continue the love affair with Wyoming’s topography, light, space and architecture. Instead of views from valleys or canyon rims, though, Arnold scales the peaks and gives us a sense of what it feels like to be someplace far more rarified.
The climbing narrative and its vantage points set the work apart. These are not aerial or drone images, but oil paintings built up from small pastels and photographs made from perches on high. Those of us who have visited such places can imagine the full spectrum of data Arnold collects: the light is different; the air feels and smells different; the rock at your back has its own vitality, and the sensation of space is beyond words.
Arnold’s palette cleaves to the warm side, with vertiginous scarps and snowfields piling up in lemon and ochre, and distances rendered in soft-focus violets and greens. The human figure is mostly absent. The overall effect bathes the viewer in the mountains’ benevolent majesty and purity, rather than their forbidding might or vulnerability to human impact. Of course, if awe, rapture, and reverence weren’t such an intense and universal response to the Rockies, we wouldn’t be painting them that way — or nearly as often.
In conversation, Arnold describes why working quickly in plein air is important to him. The need for speed in outdoor conditions presses the artist to keep “pulling stuff out of your inner self.” Referring to those fresh interpretations when back in the studio helps prevent slavish description on the canvas. Navigating between “description versus expression,” with the emphasis on expression, helps Arnold keep his realist style grounded in relatively loose brushwork, and well away from what he calls “taxidermied photos.” Close inspection reveals flurries of marks that could stand alone as abstract paintings.
Elaine Olafson Henry’s extensive career has included teaching at and chairing a university art department in Kansas, leading national and international ceramics associations, and editing/publishing two esteemed journals on ceramics.
Henry explores meaning and beauty by manipulating clay. She is the only artist in this biennial fellowship who embraces her medium as her primary message. Henry gets astounding mileage from this focus on her response to clay and its response to her, because she understands that aesthetic pleasure — “tickle” in her words — is essentially a secret dance between our paleo-brains and our bodies. She describes her work with clay as a conversation about, among other things, “excess and constraint,” “fluidity and stability,” and “control and discovery.” These opposing dynamics undergird not only innumerable body functions, but also our thought processes and emotions.
Her exquisite craftsmanship is servant to a deep dive into the human experience. In keeping with themes of contrast and paradox, these sculptures are funereal and funny, beautiful and thought-provoking, even alarming. They are stable yet have tiny feet and brawny tops. They are smooth and stately, yet also embellished with frills, strands, and wreaths of boiling texture that evoke scrambling arthropods … and sumptuous fabric or leather.
Henry is the rare Wyoming artist whose work might have been created anywhere in the world — probably because she has made art all over the world with all kinds of people. But surely her observations about the sources of aesthetic delight also promulgate this global view. Henry’s artwork manages to suggest a narrative (ceremony, humor, mortality, history) through form, not through literal representations of subject matter. It also invites anyone to expand their definition of beauty through an encounter with strangeness, discovering that “tickle” of pleasure and opening wide the door of art appreciation. Viewers who accept Henry’s invitation may go on to find they have new eyes to see and enjoy more art than before.
Some landscape-based art commemorates the land obliquely, directing our attention to the margins. Paintings and sculpture by Pat Kikut (Laramie), Senior Associate Lecturer in Painting at UW, tend toward the spare and enigmatic, mirroring his subject matter — the expansive Western deserts and the record of human interventions upon them. He has investigated this aspect of the landscape from Wyoming to Texas, Montana, Nevada and Kansas. Focused on the “tidal zone” between human activity and nature, Kikut looks at the impacted spaces most of us avoid, such as blasted areas behind truck stops and billboards. “These landscapes read like empty stage sets where props are strewn about as the actors have finished their narrative and exited the scene,” writes Kikut, yet they are also examples of the “rugged and enduring beauty of the West.” This paradox (which would be ironic, if his art were not so utterly guileless) is key to appreciating Kikut’s work.
“Square States Monument” is the most conventionally finished and objectively beautiful work I have seen by this artist. An approximately half-size replica of a wooden power or telephone pole rises from a black cube-shaped base. The top surface of the base, surrounding the pole, is a decorative geometric design made from crushed rock in various earth colors. The design is easily recognized as a map of the interlocking square-ish Western states, with Wyoming in a central, dominant position. Kikut says it’s a map of his “artistic neighborhood,” using rocks collected primarily from roadsides. Aloft, connected to the pole’s arms, four gently drooping lines of blue-white neon — lines of transmission — stretch out into space. Kikut observes that telephone poles are a great metaphor for the human presence in our remote region: they are seemingly everywhere; their vertical forms rise from the ground with outstretched arms; and by themselves they can do nothing — telephone poles must be connected to each other to create meaning. Further, the cruciform pole suggests sacrifice. “Anything we put on the landscape is a compromise,” he says.
Like Kikut, Andy Kincaid (Wilson) is drawn to time-and-space travel. His current work focuses on historic trails and pathways, their roles in Western expansion, and how new frontiers continue to emerge. Given that all art is undergirded by concepts and requires some form of physical engagement to be experienced, Kincaid’s installation in this biennial was still one of the few capital-C-Conceptual artworks in any Fellowship show in my memory.
The site-specific installation, “Oasis — for new waggoneers — world heritage global rescue survival,” invited viewers into an enclosure that, pristine modern surfaces notwithstanding, reimagined an Oregon Trail migration as it might be conducted today, positing conditions such as uncertainty of the route, dangerous situations and dependence on luck as well as preparation.
Visitors passed through sheer white curtains into a white corridor with an arched fabric ceiling that recollected the enclosed space of a Conestoga wagon. Suspended above was a set of three video screens the visitor could watch while proceeding through the space. The video loops were shot from the point of view of a hiker in motion, looking straight down at the uneven, rocky ground; they certainly called to mind many a long trail both real and figurative. On the floor up ahead, a white polystyrene rattlesnake, symbol of threat and misfortune, sat on a cushion of rabbit skins before a shrine bearing tools for the journey. The visitor needed to step around the snake to view these symbolic items: polysteel horseshoes, abalone shells, lucky rabbits’ feet, training supplements, and synthetic wishbones. At the end of the corridor, behind the shrine, a “trail life mural” combined a reproduction of Albert Bierstadt’s 1869 painting “The Oregon Trail” with a photo of Emma Gatewood, the first woman to complete a solo through-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Not explained in the installation, but mentioned in the exhibit catalog, was the artist’s thesis that we face disturbing new frontiers on both the global environmental scene and the ever-growing alien world of digital technology. The potential for sublime awe and terror has perhaps not been this great since the nuclear age began.
I appreciated Kincaid’s focus on history and his sense of humor. I confess that I yearned for a juicier interactive experience that more clearly depicted possible future frontiers and their connections to our past, even at the risk of getting them wrong. Importantly, the piece urges us to think about our narratives the next time we take any journey into the unknown, and I’m grateful that Kincaid presented a relatively unfamiliar medium to a Wyoming audience. It would be interesting to have this installation next to the wagon-ride experience at the National Historical Trails Interpretive Center in Casper.
Inhabiting multiple cultures and landscapes grounded in the West, Robert Martinez (Riverton) has drawn from his Northern Arapaho and other Native and non-Native traditions to celebrate and comment upon what it means to be Indian in North America today. Among other honors and achievements, Martinez is a founding member of the Creative Indigenous Collective, a group of contemporary Native artists who are establishing an impressive exhibition record across the country. He is a First Peoples Fund/Cultural Capital Fellow, and in 2019 was artist-in-residence at the Center of the West. Martinez’s work has been collected by several major institutions, including the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Martinez intends his art to reach both Natives and non-Natives, and is a skilled designer, but I have to assume that some underlying messages in the work will have escaped me.
This exhibit includes examples from Martinez’s two major bodies of work: high-contrast, brightly colored airbrushed paintings on canvas, and monochrome drawings made on reproductions of historic documents.
Martinez describes the paintings, which are often larger-than-life portraits, as his “direct response to the sepia and black/white photos of Natives which conjure thoughts of a romanticized and dead culture.” His use of both modern airbrush and classical oil techniques on the same canvas is intended to startle and confront the viewer. He writes “we, as Natives, are still here and getting stronger all the time.”
Martinez’s works on paper use different means to startle, confront, and carry forward the “we’re still here” message. In the Ledger Art tradition, they employ vintage documents as their substrate; upon their surfaces, Martinez illustrates Native people enacting themes from pop and contemporary culture. This mixing of old and new — bold characters moving across the old stories of broken treaties and government maps — is delightful and disruptive. Most interesting to me are Martinez’s drawings of Native figures in traditional dress performing rap music, break dancing, and other activities usually associated with urban Black Americans. Native Rap/Hip Hop in urban Native communities has been gaining ground across the country since the turn of this century, but I’m not sure many Wyomingites have gotten the memo.
In the exhibit catalog, Martinez offers an eloquent long-form poem by way of an artist’s statement. It reads in part:
“We fought with you then and we fight with you now
We befriended you then and we befriend you now …
We all have white, black, brown and yellow friends whom we treat like family because
they are …
We have your problems and we have our own
We are here
We are not what you Expect.”
Indeed, setting aside preconceived notions would be liberating for everyone, Native and non-Native alike. It is a difficult challenge, though. Mythology accrued over long history provides everyone with familiar protective scripts. Unless or until we figure out how to start anew, every Native artwork will at some level be about the loss of something that non-Natives like me can’t bear to imagine losing.
Much talk lately about economic growth in Wyoming touches on the contributions of the arts. The arts are not so much entrepreneurial businesses as they are idea factories and energy sources for the rest of us. Each Fellowship exhibit is an opportunity to spotlight what six of our bright and ambitious contemporary artists want us to think about.
A WAC Fellowship award is not the only yardstick for excellence, nor is it a guarantee of artistic fame or commercial success, but it’s a high bar and encouragement to rise higher. Wyoming should be proud of its tough, dedicated, and fortunate Fellowship winners.
Catalogs of Western Explorations: The Wyoming Arts Council Biennial Fellowship Exhibition 2018 and 2019 are available online or in hard copy from the Wyoming Arts Council.
The 2016-2017 Fellowship Biennial, reviewed by Bruce Richardson
Margaret Haydon exhibit, reviewed by Jenny Dowd
Profile of Joe Arnold by Kelsey Dayton
Patrick Kikut exhibit, reviewed by Maria Rose Wimmer
Work by Robert Martinez, in a review of Rendezvous 2018 exhibit
Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.