Western Stories is a simple yet perfect title for the newest exhibit at the Palm Springs Art Museum.
The show, which will be on display through Sept. 4 of next year, references historical relationships between people and the land. The works move us away a bit from our preconceived notions of the West—heroic and filled with scenic grandeur, for example—to reveal sublime and multifaceted character tales.
“In juxtaposing how people connect to the landscape, through spirituality and the making of the Western icon, in showing cowboy and Indian themes, we encourage people to look and compare,” says curator Mara Gladstone.
“Roping a Prairie Wolf,” Charles Marion Russell’s watercolor and gouache on board, captures the moment when two cowboys are about to capture a wolf. The comradery and excitement between the cowboys, atop their horses on the blue-tinted prairie, reveals a little about the cowboy aura and life. It’s no surprise to learn that Russell himself was a cowboy—known as a storyteller through his images.
In William Robinson Leigh’s serene “Thunder Mountain,” an oil on canvas from 1910 or so, the viewer is struck by the brilliant, colorful sunlight hitting the mountains in the background and reflecting in a stream. One Indian man is seated in a meditative moment, while another meanders along the stream on horseback. Both men are eloquently weaved into the fabric of this scene. “This location is an important site for the Zuni people. It is a heaven on Earth and a safe haven,” Gladstone says.
Leigh and several other painters in this show were or are also illustrators. Another illustrative but more modern work, Bill Schenck’s “Cañon Sin Nombre,” an oil on canvas from 1985, is placed toward the end of this show, perhaps because the work combines several genres; Schenck is widely known for his photo-realist and pop stylizations of the West.
The Western Stories show also includes artifacts, letters, songs and a variety of other elements to show connections between people and the Western land. Indian women are depicted in several works, including “Fall,” Wendy Red Star’s archival pigment print from her Four Seasons series; it shows a seated woman whose beautiful wardrobe mimics the fall leaves surrounding her. In Walter Ufer’s oil on canvas titled “A Yearling,” the artist shows us a young horse reaching for milk beneath a mare while a Native American couple sits patiently on horseback (the man is atop the aforementioned mare) amidst majestic surroundings. Ufer painted many Taos and Pueblo Native American Indians in New Mexico, where he lived.
The galleries adjacent to Western Stories within the Denney Western American Art Wing are currently hosting compelling shows as well.
Reflections on Water has a more literal focus, as it displays various works that show both the substantive and symbolic importance of water in the West. In Montgomery Meets Modernism: Two Americas, actor George Montgomery’s self-made furniture and his collection of Western art are placed next to modernist paintings, furniture and photographs from the post-World War II period.
“In this new America, two parallel visual cultures emerged at the same time,” Gladstone explains. “The artworks reflect the kinds of ways people were thinking about the future. The new modern future and the post-World War II nostalgia for the traditions of the past were both emerging at the same time in Palm Springs.”
Montgomery Meets Modernism makes for a fun follow-up to Western Stories; the exhibits explore time periods that seem inherently dissonant—although they both tell tales that are uniquely Western.
The Palm Springs Art Museum is located at 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday through Tuesday; and noon to 9 p.m., Thursday and Friday. Admission costs $12.50, with discounts; admission is free to all on Thursday after 4 p.m. and every second Sunday. For more information, call 760-322-4800, or visit www.psmuseum.org.
Above right: William Robinson Leigh, “Thunder Mountain,” ca. 1910, oil on canvas, collection of Palm Springs Art Museum, museum purchase with funds provided by the George Montgomery Acquisition Fund. First below: Walter Ufer, “A Yearling,” 1929, oil on canvas, collection of Palm Springs Art Museum, museum purchase with funds provided by the Western Art Council, General Acquisition Fund, Dr. Lawrence and Marcia Adams, Western Art Acquisition Fund and Rockefeller Western Art Acquisition Fund, 1993. Second below: Wendy Red Star, “Fall” (from the Four Seasons series), 2006, archival pigment print, collection of Palm springs Art Museum, gift of Loren G. Lipson, MD, © Wendy Red Star.