ONCE ACHIEVED, WHAT IS IT WORTH?: MFA Thesis Defense/Artist Talk
I make work about what I know.
I was born in Casper, Wyoming, grew up in Spearfish, South Dakota and for the past three years have lived in Missoula, Montana. My work examines the contemporary social, political and physical landscape of the region, exploring the myths and misconceptions associated with the American West misinform and distort the cultural norms of the region. My intention is to create a more factual representation of the American West, a region that has been marauded for its resources for centuries and remains that way in the present day.
My parents were and continue to be the most middle of middle class. I never lived a stereotypically “Western” existence. I never rode a horse to get someplace. I never needed to mend a fence. I consistently lived within 10 minutes of a doctor, dentist, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s all of my life. The frontier of my youth is not the frontier of the homesteader or the one canonized in Hollywood lore, rather, it is the gentrified frontier of the “new American West.” My experience is one rooted not in courageous individualism but in clever capitalism.
The myths and misconceptions of the American West are inextricably linked to the aims and desires associated with Manifest Destiny.
In the opening scene of Fort Apache, considered to be a classic John Ford film, Henry Fonda, portraying a career army officer, is seen riding his horse through a quintessentially western American landscape. The place is Monument Valley, a wild and sparsely settled region on the Arizona-Utah border, that has long been a favorite shooting location for Hollywood filmmakers, especially those who made Western films a defining genre. Numerous Westerns were filmed here, set against one of the most remarkable topographies on earth. The iconic landscape of the region provided an ideal backdrop for the development and cultivation of the myth of the American cowboy, and in many ways, the myth of America itself.
It is the physical landscape of the American West that perhaps most defines what it stereotypically means to be American. Obviously, the extreme physicality of this region is without equal and it is therefore an idyllic personification of our collective consciousness. It reflects an individualist ideal of strength, perseverance and free will. Partially because of this awe-inspiring beauty it also functions as a convenient distraction from the realities of the historical and contemporary American West.
John L. O’Sullivan is credited with coining the phrase “Manifest Destiny” in 1845, when he wrote, “...It is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government.”
Essentially, O’Sullivan’s declaration claimed that the virtue of America’s people and their institutions were superior and that we were called directly by God to spread these institutions from “sea to shining sea.” In John Gast’s painting American Progress, Columbia, a personification of the United States, leads civilization westward with American settlers, stringing telegraph wire as she sweeps west. This allegorical representation of modernization evokes a sense of pride and feels like a call to arms for expansion. Directly linked to the principles of American Exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny led to an unprecedented history of violence and brutality that was conveniently romanticized or entirely forgotten when examining the films of John Ford, paintings of the Hudson River School or even the paintings hanging in the Dana Gallery in downtown Missoula.
There is a clear reason for this omission of truth in our “pop” presentation of the historical and contemporary West. Quite simply, the “Great American Myth” doesn’t read as well when we are playing the role of the villain.
But before I address American Exceptionalism in relation to Manifest Destiny, I wish to focus on the economic economic consequences associated with it, most notably the boom and bust cycle.
There is something very American about the boom and bust cycle. From the gold rush in the Black Hills of South Dakota to the copper boom in Butte to the natural gas boom that North Dakota is currently experiencing, Americans have been pouring west, pillaging and plundering the land for its resources in the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness and that most important of American virtues: affluence.
Jerry Z. Muller writes that, “Inequality and insecurity are perennial features of capitalism.”
In my exhibition, the party’s over, I examined the most current example of this cycle, the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota. This exhibition could be seen as a prequel to my MFA Thesis Exhibition at the Gallery of Visual Arts; the former being a visual boom to the latter’s visual bust. Both exhibitions explored the 21st century incarnation of Manifest Destiny, in particular the natural gas boom in North Dakota. And when thinking of the cycle of boom and bust culture, a cycle that has been a constant presence in the American West for the past two centuries, it called to mind two very different extremes; these extremes being the initial grandeur and providential opulence of the boom followed cruelly by the abject desolation of the bust. For this exhibition, I felt it necessary to change my artistic approach from reductive to additive in order to engage directly and aggressively with the viewer.
The goal of this being to draw visual parallels between the excesses and deterioration of the boom and bust cycle and the corresponding excesses and deteriorations of a house party; the boom bringing the promise of some great experience (the party) and the bust leaving a mess for the owner to clean up (the morning after). Party supplies such as streamers, balloons, confetti and pennants were mixed in with empty bottles, cans, cigarette butts and boxes worked as metaphors to visually articulate the overindulgence, waste and ruin that a boom brings to a community, producing an experiential moment to reflect on the despondency that often follows such instances.
In addition to glossing over the economic deprivation endemic to the cycle of boom and bust, the principles of Manifest Destiny have helped define masculinity and the role of the quintessential American hero: the cowboy. The invented cowboy was a relatively late romantic creation. In terms of social content he represented the ideal of individualist freedom pushed into a sort of inescapable jail by the closing of the frontier. He was a strong, silent man of action who did what was right, no matter what. He was a gunslinger, certainly, but he never cut anyone down who didn’t have it coming. He drank whiskey but never got drunk. He never harmed a woman or a child. Rather, the cowboy archetype embodied by the likes of John Wayne or Gary Cooper was a noble, charismatic personification of Manifest Destiny. He was America. And in many ways, he still is America.
Perhaps it is because I have lived in the American West for all of my life and have experienced the veracity of the region firsthand that I have developed a disdain for the tropes of the Western. To paraphrase Dave Hickey, the American West is a place that we broke and never bothered to fix.
This willingness to remove the facade of the American West in favor of a more historically accurate narrative is integral to my research and studio practice. In novels like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and Anne Proulx’s anthology of short stories Close Range: Wyoming Stories, themes of isolation, economic dearth and abject violence are set against the backdrop of the frequently mythologized West. Existential films like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, with it realistic portrayal of Native Americans and its staunch depiction of violence and the consequences of these actions and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which presented the legendary fugitive for what he was: a violent, manipulative and morally bankrupt Confederate sympathizer read true to my experience and read true to the history of the region I choose to talk about within my work.
In the past I have utilized found text, iconography and symbols related to the archetypes of the region to form a visual critique of the myths and misconceptions we as a society have cultivated and have come to understand as fact. In my thesis exhibition, I decided to present all of the Pop Western ephemera in the form of found footage of iconic Westerns and “Marlboro Man” commercials, combining it with footage of rural roads in South Dakota to create a video piece titled When the Horse Whips the Man that He Rode. By contrasting the myth with the reality of the contemporary social conditions I allowed viewers to interpret the circumstances of the situation within the medium that has perpetuated the legend and fallacy that so much of our cultural identity is based upon.
In the brilliant opening of There Will Be Blood, we are confronted with a realistic depiction of how the West was truly won. Like so many of John Ford’s films the cinematography is stunning and we as viewers are left in awe of the surroundings we are presented with. But unlike those early Westerns, the romanticism and good-natured folly are absent. There is no dialogue, the soundtrack is stark and severe and we are presented with imagery illustrating how the West was, unceremoniously dangerous and isolated, and why the West was truly as sought after as it was, natural resources.
Daniel Plainview is not The Ringo Kid and that is because he is something more uncomfortably candid. He is the loathsome and avaricious personification of Manifest Destiny. He was the America that colonized and subjugated the Native populations for capital. And he still is the America that seeks out natural resources for maximum profit at all cost.
In order to visually articulate this reinterpretation of the myth in favor of an abject depiction I have found it necessary to primarily employ a reductive process.
The curator Lynn Zelevansky wrote, “Minimalism has a place in the second half of the century akin to the one that Cubism had in the first half. A high percentage of artists have worked with aspects of it, deliberately violating it and creatively misunderstanding it.”
I believe that in my own practice I am working specifically with certain aspects of Minimalism: the grid, the mathematical organization, the absence of visual information, etc., but am indeed violating certain aspects of it to create work that falls outside the traditional principles of Minimalism.
Artists such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Janine Antoni, Lawrence Carroll and Anne Appleby are just a few artists who have made use of a similar process of making to articulate their ideas. More specifically, the Iranian artist Barbad Golshiri utilizes the techniques and aesthetics associated with Minimalism as a means to confront oppression. His sculptures and installations, which deal with the socio-political atrocities that make up everyday life in Iran, dismiss the notions and conventions that are tied to authoritative representation. The result is a body of work that utilizes simple formal elements such as text and shape to question authority without making a frontal attack on it.
This sparse candidness suits his artistic intent and produces a conceptual brutality befitting of his subject matter and it is an approach that I have adapted in my own practice.
Upon coming to the University of Montana I made the decision to invest my entire research and art practice into issues pertaining to the contemporary and historical American West. In doing so, I abandoned the brightly colored aesthetic I had been employing as a means to satirically define the culture of this region in favor of a subdued and honest aesthetic more fitting with the social conditions of the rural West. By removing the authoritative icons and imagery familiar to the West I was able to allow myself more room to create and re-contextualize the romanticisms associated with this region.
In my earlier work, I exploited found text to extrapolate the myths and misconceptions I was critiquing. The pieces bang, and Landscape, being prime examples of this technique. The text had its roots in the region, or in the myths associated with the region, but by presenting them as sole entities, stripped from their known contexts, they began to take on new narratives and meaning, functioning as intellectual conduits into new understandings and interpretations of the myth.
In the article “Anti-Form,” which appeared in Artforum in 1968, Robert Morris argued that, “The Minimal object jettisoned relational arrangement, making the work’s construction explicit. In revealing materials as materials, however, Minimal art did not go far enough.”
In my practice, I am not all that interested in process or construction. I am interested in the resulting dialogue that any piece I present fosters. I view my materials as content. My choice to utilize industrial paint, slabs of drywall, roofing tar, reclaimed wood and other objects commonly associated with construction was a choice fixed in the notion that these objects carry with them a set of preconceived meanings and contexts and these contexts can be exploited by the artist.
The work Shame, was constructed from two sections of found wood, forming a diptych and fostering visual dialogue based in the ideas of defeat and abandonment. Like the other wood constructions in my thesis exhibition, this piece functions as an artificial artifact. It is composed of material that was no longer deemed useful and was therefore devoid of any value to the previous owners. This process of desertion is similar to the way that the American West has been settled and constructed. Towns and the necessary features of convenience are constructed when things are going well and then these creations are left to deteriorate when things go poorly.
The restrictive palette of my thesis work has also been a useful tool for conceptual development within the narrative I am presenting. In David Batchelor’s Chromophobia, he outlines the social and psychological underpinnings of white or “pure white” in Western culture. White brings with it associations of annihilation and death tucked conveniently behind the shroud of purity. This “virtuous whiteness” of the West also conceals other less mystical terrors. These terrors are more local and altogether more palpable; they are terrors, mainly, of the flesh. The underlying terror that can be anchored to white or whiteness has been a major component of my practice because it replicates whitewashing and the removing of historical accuracies that the dominant culture finds undesirable but it can also be seen as a tool to advance notions and reinterpretations of the sublime, traditional landscape painting and myth.
Perhaps the most notable usage of whiteness inspiring terror would be Herman Melville’s great white whale. In the piece You’re Alone, I presented five four foot by four foot panels of collaged imagery, joint compound and latex paint. The work was a reference to the isolation of the rural landscape and a critique of the constraints of organization, boundaries and ultimately land use. The organizational presentation of the grid references how the land is divided and used and how this usage affects the inhabitant. The surface of the work was built up of topographic maps of the region and then overlaid with joint compound and latex paint to mimic the features of topographical map. This process calls to mind Robert Ryman’s paintings from the 60s or the “White Paintings” of Robert Rauschenberg. While similar, I feel that my work advances this process by covering up a known surface with materials familiar to the region, evoking the action of whitewashing or erasure but maintaining a desire to replicate that “lost knowledge.”
Ultimately, the reductive aesthetic leaves viewers with a sense of unease, much like the concept of Melville’s white whale. The whale, and the threat it presents, is omnipresent. Just like the threat and fear of isolation I am depicting is omnipresent. Viewers are fully aware of the isolation they are faced with by encountering the barren landscape of the American West.
Perhaps what I am most rejecting in employing the aforementioned techniques is the illusion of order or structure that the ideals of Manifest Destiny constructed for the West. My interest in the grid comes from my interest in mapping, which is one of the most prominent and extensive manners in which a dominant group constructs social order or hierarchy and the resulting maps are thought of as infallible, factual entities, when in reality they are simply social constructions designed to further the aims of the dominant group creating them. The brunt of my research here is associated with the writings of Max Weber, George Herbert Mead and Denis Wood.
When researching a series of drawings in 2013, I was looking at three maps from the 1930s depicting land claims that had been made and allocated for farming in South Dakota. All three maps depicted the same area of land and all three maps depicted different boundaries and dimensions of the claims. It seemed peculiar to me that these maps, all of them official government documents associated with different counties could be so varied in their knowledge or assessment regarding the distribution of land.
My fascination with the seemingly arbitrary nature of mapping led me to create the piece Survey. This work, constructed from randomly cut, “county-like” sections of particle board, building materials, fabric and organic matter was presented in the loose form of a map, with gaping holes of missing information. The intention of the work was to present the viewer with the illusion of some sort of order when in reality there was no formal organization or guiding principle inherent in the piece.
Clearly, the grid paintings of Agnes Martin have figured heavily into my artistic and aesthetic influence. Her incorporation of titles that reference nature, the structure of the grid and her subtle interpretation of the sublime have weighed heavily on my artistic output during the past three years, however, I find it necessary to expand upon the basic principles of the map or the grid in order to cultivate a social, political and economic conversation around the artifice that these tools have created.
This has lead me to investigate the concept of counter-mapping, which has its roots in Dada and Surrealism, and attempts to question and re- contextualize known boundaries in a critique of the principles under which they were constructed. The map, when reduced to its most basic form, is nothing but a series of lines, color, form and text. It is the socially constructed and preconceived context that we have of these design elements that allows us to organize all of this into a concept. But when you subvert these principles, disorganizing the traditional elements of an existing map or simply utilize traditional elements to create an arbitrary or artificial map, there can be a newfound understanding or resonance superficially created.
In my piece The Beginning of it Starts at the End (Bakken I), I placed 400 map pins in the wall corresponding to drill sites and proposed drill sites within a 50 square mile radius. I employed a variation on this theme in the piece Building a Desert (Bakken II) where I used the same 50 square mile radius and presented 50 one and a half inch blocks covered in tar.
Obviously, in these two pieces, my source material was coming from a tangible map and I employed traditional tenets associated with mapping (map pins and the grid block structure) to construct the work, but by removing text, symbols and other signifiers outside of the title of the pieces, I believe that these two pieces fit comfortably into the dialogue that the work Survey was fostering. These three works present viewers with the illusion of order, even though one of them is complete artifice. While all three of the aforementioned works owe a debt to cartography, I feel that by presenting them in this manner I am offering a critique to the sanctity of maps and how the illusion of order that they present to our society is arbitrary at best and fictional at worst.
In closing, a quote by K. Ross Toole is of particular interest to my practice: “There is great danger in short memories . . . Let today’s Westerner stop occasionally by the remnants of the failed homesteaders’ town, with its blankly staring windows, its collapsed granary, occupied only by field mice and prairie dogs, and its bank—the doors agape, the vault empty. It is important to remember.”
This is an American West that I understand.
My American West is driving for hours and not seeing a single town. My American West is the seething roast of summer when the grass turns brown and animal carcasses pepper the interstate. My American West is the physical and psychological absence of winter. My American West is a prairie populated by oil derricks and coal pits. My American West is a wash of yellow, brown, black and white. My American West smells of burnt coffee, cigarettes, beer, whiskey, sweat, diesel and manure. My American West is a land of abandonment where people, places and things are almost always forgotten as soon as they are replaced. My American West is a violent and brutal social construction.
My American West is what it is.