Having spent his early years as a prominent activist in the Native American movement and his latter years as an artist, Jimmie Durham would have been a very good curator for a show about the myth of the American West – were it not for the fact that he is currently holed up in Berlin and loathes the States so much he won’t return. So, needing someone to go to the USA and bring together this diverse show of historical and contemporary art, memorabilia and roadside tat, whom should Durham choose? Richard William Hill, a liberal Canadian of Cree descent, who found himself movin’ out for the frontier in the summer of 2004, just as Texas’ premier cowboy was rounding up his men to ensure that he remained, as folks say, the biggest toad in the puddle. Not surprisingly, the result is a show with the kind of even-handed balance one would expect if Hilton Kramer and Jesse Helms curated Robert Mapplethorpe.
Durham and Hill despise the myth of the West, and consequently they are apt to stress its fiction rather than its grounding in fact. The only substantial historical relics are a series of drawings executed by Native Americans while they were being held in prison camps following the end of the Southern Plains Indian Wars in 1875. These are intriguing records of conquest and suffering with a stylistic flavour reminiscent of the Bayeux Tapestry, and the installation accords them reverence. By contrast, Charles Schreyvogel’s ‘Cowboys and Indians’ battle scenes from the early 1900s are swiftly undercut by photographs of him painting his ‘cowboys’ on the roof of an apartment in Hoboken. Meanwhile, in place of any examples of the majestic Victorian landscapes of Frederic Remington and Albert Bierstadt (a venial sin of omission), there is a series of pastiches by contemporary Canadian painter Kent Monkman, who has secreted anecdotal figures in the foreground engaged in Tom of Finland-style antics.
Gay love on the frontier may not be part of the official myth, but then it’s also surprising to find items such as the presentation Colt revolver made for John F. Kennedy: the cowboy myth crosses the political divide. The room of photographs and memorabilia focusing on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (and his marvellously named Congress of Rough Riders of the World) also sheds light on a man who may have been more sympathetic to aboriginal Americans than he was to his own race. Tales of going native, of love crossing the lines and other weird exchanges, are some of the show’s most powerful subtexts.
But those subtexts emerge from the memorabilia – particularly from the racy covers of dime novels that Hill picked up on his travels – and certainly not from contemporary art. Durham’s familiarity with Mexico determined the inclusion of a number of Mexican artists such as Daniel Guzman and Abraham Cruzvillegas, and Hill’s Canadian roots brought in fellow countrymen including Terrance Houle, Jeff Thomas and Monkman, but this feels partial. Some artists descend to puerile mockery such as Cisco Jiménez’ slide projection of a series of found images that he has altered, often by scratching on a set of cock and balls. Others just look befuddled: Maria Thereza Alves offers dreary snaps of Western-themed websites, as if the West’s mythographers were just a bunch of cyber cranks.
Perhaps the signal disappointment for Hill on his road research trip was discovery that one of the central exhibits in the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City is James Earle Fraser’s The End of the Trail (1894). Fraser’s white plaster statue of a Native American dying on his horse has become a motif that has multiplied itself endlessly across cowboy memorabilia (and consequently it echoes throughout the show). Hill thinks it inappropriate in the Cowboy Museum; I’m not sure, particularly as Fraser was sympathetic to the Native American cause – at least by the standards of his time. But noble or ignoble, the status of Fraser’s motif is interesting, because its high art source has been entirely eclipsed by the ocean of kitsch to which it has lent an image. Also the sheer quantity of kitsch in the show – from Stars and Stripes cowboy boots to Monkman’s paintings – suggests an unhealthy fixation for Durham and Hill. Part of them loves the fact that the myth of the West has so little substance that its expressions are mostly trash; part of them fears that little more than a stetson and a whiff of ranch dust can get you into the White House; and part of them hates the fact that Native American history has been reduced to such vulgarity. They’re just not sure which part matters most.