Long before Santa Fe was a blip on anyone’s map of art destinations, the American West, in general, consumed the imaginations of artists. Just as American aggression is propagandized today through movies, television logos and other tailored media, the westward expansion of the Manifest Destiny era relied on the media of the day—poetry and painting—to glorify what was often messy, genocidal land-grabbing.
Painters, of course, were not always complicit in their work being transformed into signifiers and justifications for such actions. Following the path laid by romanticists such as Caspar David Friedrich, painters in the United States, particularly of the Hudson River School, electrified viewers with awe-inspiring landscapes that seem to glow with almost divine light and that elevated the glory of nature to new heights in the collective imagination. Some of the Hudson River painters, such as Thomas Moran, went westward and continued to provoke awe and curiosity by capturing the drama of the mountains and landscapes they encountered.
Other painters, such as Emanuel Leutze, famous for his depiction of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” and John Gast, made sweeping allegorical works that emphasized a divine call for the move west and softened the heavy-handed treatment doled out to Native Americans by the US Army. But even now, long after the west was settled and cities sprawl up the coast and the nation slips into a kind of insular lethargy where innovation has been farmed off to distant and eager shores, the American West still captivates. The larger-than-life legend of Western grit and independence is, thanks to vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, more or less the entire Republican strategy for capturing the White House.
Many contemporary artists, too, continue to mull over the landscapes and problems of the American West, from the modular dwelling units created by Andrea Zittel to the ongoing fetish with large scale land art by Walter de Maria, Robert Smithson, James Turrell et al. With its beauty tempered by the observations of keen-eyed critics ranging from John Wesley Powell to Edward Abbey, and its stark beauty peppered with coal plants, oil wells, trailer parks and sprawl developments, landscape painters, in particular, have represented the factual mundanity of what was once divine promise by juxtaposing the modern-built environment with the great expanses that were the crucible of so many dreams and prophecies.
Among these artists is Patrick Kikut, the painter who formerly hosted exhibitions at his No Man’s Land studio in Agua Fria Village and who now teaches painting at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Kikut recently worked with College of Santa Fe wunderkind curator David Leigh to assemble Artist Point. The exhibition features Kikut and two other artists, David Jones and Edgar Smith. The title refers to Kikut’s consideration of the kind of pointing artists do toward ideas and issues, whether conceptual, formal or social. Artists also use pointing as a technical skill, shaping works and forms to direct the eye of the viewer and influence the perception of a given piece.
Jones points readily toward social and environmental issues, with his bell jar displays of dilapidated cars and detritus crumbling into the landscape. His hand-crafted steel model of an oil well operation is so well-constructed, it would make a model train enthusiast wet his pants. Smith is more subtle and elusive, constructing a series of sculptures modeled after hunting trophies. The works, elegant and clever in form, point in a physical direction. One companion set is an abstracted human head and “human chunk” on attractive mounts. It is blunt and effective.
Kikut’s work consists largely of pulling elements, such as cloud forms, from historic works, like those of Moran, which originally served to focus the paintings. He has blown them up and placed them free floating on a wall, exploring the gallery’s blank walls as a conceptual horizon. Kikut asks: What do these signifiers mean when removed from their original context and allowed to float free and interact with the work of Jones and Smith?
The answer depends. When viewed against Jones’ oil-drilling landscape, the works gain some traction. When isolated against a long blank wall, there is at least the potential for opening a discussion on plane, horizon and the meaning of looking at a painting. Kikut uses too many of the pieces in the exhibition, however, and relies too much on the viewer intuiting the artist’s art-intensive thoughts.
It’s OK for art to be complicated. It really is. If a work of art requires a lengthy explanation in order to be fully understood or can only be appreciated wholly with an accompanying essay, that’s fine. But it also has to work without any kind of support. In other words, language can enhance the viewer’s experience with a piece of art, but it can’t substitute for the art being successful on its own without interpretation.
Kikut is at the forefront of a group of young painters considering what it means to translate the condition and idea of the American West, but this effort is too intellectual on one end and too ungrounded on the other. Maybe, like his forbearers, he should return to a little pop propaganda.
Through Oct. 17
CSF Fine Arts Gallery
College of Santa Fe
1600 St. Michael’s Drive