People of the West, do you tire of Western art? Perhaps you've been to one too many wannabe "saloons" decked out with terribly idealized prints of cattlemen and their cattle. Or weekend cabins boasting uninspired, boring landscapes depicting Mountain Life.
This month, we can all find reprieve from the stereotypes, the stale ideas and the status quo. The Dana Gallery's third annual Icons of the West, a juried exhibit made up of 120 pieces, includes a refreshingly diverse lineup of artists, equally celebrating the traditional bison and grizzly imagery as well as the not-so-traditional slag heaps and vigilantes. The well-respected downtown gallery isn't always known for being experimental or weird, but among the displays we found pieces that evolve and even defy Western subjects and symbols. From oil paintings of Playmobil cowboys to sculptures of contemporary taxidermy roadkill, here are five of our favorites.
Pamela Hodges-Faulk, "Drunken Bird"
After you become roadkill, you rarely get to become anything else. But if you are lucky enough to find your way into the studio of Missoula resident Pamela Hodges-Faulk, getting hit by a car is just the beginning. In this sculpture, which greets you right inside the Dana Gallery's front door, a fantastic taxidermy bird struts along a piece of driftwood, with bright spirals of leaves and trash (is that an iced tea label?) swirling out among the animal's plumage. We may never know why this particular bird tried to cross the road, or why it was hit, but we admit that, for art's sake, we're kind of glad it happened.
Nate Loda, "Cattle Man," "Campire," "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys"
There are plenty of creative ways to criticize the past, explore the American experience and tell people about your own personal life stories. But artist and George Mason University master's candidate Nate Loda does so by painting still lifes of provocative scenes enacted by Playmobil toys. Loda has three paintings on display at Dana Gallery, all focused on perhaps the two most complicated and misunderstood icons of the West: cowboys and American Indians. These aren't like any oil paintings you have ever seen, and if they are, we're guessing you've seen Loda's work before.
Adair Peck, "Mountain Goat," "Elk," "Buffalo"
This is not anything close to that papier-mâché project you did in grade school. In her artist statement, Bozeman's Adair Peck describes her art as a place where "anxiety, fear, pain and corruption often coexist with humor and hope." That's an apt description of her three papier-mâché trophy mounts—a mountain goat, elk and buffalo that seem to be watching the rest of the Icons of the West exhibit from above. Partially playful and cartoonish, partially grotesque and disturbing, the mounts are a thoughtful take on three of the most common symbols of the region.
Jack Dempsey Boyd, "Manifest Destiny"
From even a few yards away, this American Indian headdress looks like a perfectly traditional (and possibly problematic) piece of Western art. But as you get closer, you see that the feathers are intricately cut dollar bills while the decorations are constructed from coins and credit cards, not leather and beads. Surprise: Missoula sculptor Jack Dempsey Boyd has taken what has often been a misused and misappropriated icon of the West and given the viewer something new to think about. The dream of early American settlers to take over the West and make it over in their own image couldn't be summed up any better than this statement about consumerism. It's also pretty stunning to look at.
Meagan Thompson, "Null and Void Landscape"
When you think about traditional Western landscapes, they often contain dramatic mountains, big skies and sweeping prairies—usually piled high with cattle or wildflowers, forests or streams. But this stark photograph by Butte artist Meagan Thompson captures a landscape that is dramatic—and iconic—in a very different way: the roll of a hill after a winter of heavy snow, the sky just a slightly different shade of white than the ground. There are a few dead fingers of plant life poking through the surface, just enough to orient the viewer and remind us that we aren't on an alien planet. Thompson's photo also emphasizes another point we all know too well: being a Western icon in Montana usually means spending a lot of the year blanketed in snow.
Icons of the West continues at the Dana Gallery through June 30.