In the arena of international politics, a lot of weight has been heaped upon the delicate relationship between China and the United States. And within this profound geopolitical discourse, who would’ve thunk that a disparate collection of Missoula artists would play such a regular role?
Consider that within the last year, Missoula’s Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre Company was invited to tour China in advance of the 2008 Olympics; photographer and gallery owner Dudley Dana and his wife Candace Crosby traveled with renowned Chinese oil painter Zhiwei Tu throughout his homeland; and local bluegrass patrons Broken Valley Roadshow flew to southwest China’s Guangxi Zhuang region to play a coveted gig in the Nanning International Folk Song Arts Festival. Each foray was arranged completely separately from the others, but all coincidentally tied back to the Garden City.
And now there’s this: Meridian International Center, a Washington, D.C., non-profit focused on fostering cultural understanding through art, has collaborated with a number of local artists and institutions to create Out West: The Great American Landscape.
The exhibition is part of an international exchange with—you guessed it—China, a return show following the 2004 import of Ancient Threads, Newly Woven, which focused on China’s Silk Road and traveled through Missoula in 2004. Out West spent much of last year touring China’s most prestigious museums, including The National Art Museum in Beijing and the Shanghai Art Museum, and makes its one and only domestic stop in Missoula for February’s First Friday Art Walk at the Dana Gallery.
“I had no idea about the other connections to China, but I guess I’m not that surprised,” says Nancy Matthews, co-curator of the exhibit and the Meridian International Center’s vice president of arts and cultural affairs. “Missoula is an unbelievable hub for Western art. In fact, that reputation and the fact that it was really one of the biggest contributors to the show was why we wanted to bring it there.”
Out West features contemporary Western artwork gathered from some of the country’s most well respected collections, including Santa Fe’s Owings-Dewey Fine Art and Southern California’s Coda Gallery, but the Montana contingent emerges most prominently. There’s one of Julie Chapman’s signature wildlife paintings, George Gogas’ abstract impressionism, Davi Nelson and Russell Chatham landscapes, Tom Gilleon’s American Indian-inspired work, and a Monte Dolack lithographic print. All of those pieces—and more—were donated in cooperation with the Missoula Art Museum, Dana Gallery, University of Montana’s Museum of Art and Culture, and local art collector Geoff Sutton, who works for Montana’s World Trade Center and is also credited as a curatorial advisor.
“It’s really like a regional all-star show,” says Dana. “It’s hard to convey just how important this is to people who may not know the other names included in the exhibit. It’s an honor to have these artists up in the gallery.”
Among the bigger names from beyond Missoula are watercolorist William Matthews, best known for his portrayal of working cowboys; Ed Mell, whose bold, angular landscapes invoke vintage movie posters; and Page Allen, an ethereal Santa Fe painter inspired by the likes of Georgia O’Keefe. In addition, there are some intriguing contemporary inclusions from less established names. For instance, Luis Tapia’s “Dashboard Altar” is a three-dimensional construction of a gaudy dashboard, decorated with religious artifacts and symbolic knickknacks. Inspired by the changing face of Santa Fe’s hispanic population, the windshield looks out to a desolate city street.
Matthews hopes the exhibit’s 54 pieces convey a complex, realistic picture of the contemporary American West.
“The landscapes, the Native American influence, the mountains, the cowboys, the wildlife—all those things which are legendary about the West are in there,” she says. “Pulled together, I think it leaves quite an impression of how all of that is changing.”
Matthews toured with Out West throughout China and says audiences there were curious to dig deeper. She fielded questions on everything from what exactly is a cowboy to how ranchers survive in the desolate terrain depicted in some of the paintings. It’s precisely why the Meridian International Center pursues such projects—to stimulate that kind of curiosity.
“It’s been a wonderful exchange for both cultures, getting to know more about one another and art acting as an ambassador beyond politics,” says Matthews. “And, honestly, Missoula has played a huge role in making that possible.”
Out West: The Great American Landscape is open to the public starting Friday, Feb. 1, at the Dana Gallery. An artist’s reception will be held in conjunction with First Friday starting at 5 PM.