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Awestruck in America’s West

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — ‘This isn’t your grandmother’s landscape show’

The Albuquerque Museum of Art and History is hosting a peddle-to-the-metal, pull-up-your-suspenders and hold-your-horses installation blandly titled “Changing Perceptions of the Western Landscape.”

As museum director Cathy Wright said during a recent visit: “This isn’t your grandmother’s landscape show.”

Those of us who didn’t grow up out here formed our ideas about the West by watching western movies, reading Zane Grey novels or, heaven forbid, the more than 100 Louis L’Amour books in print.

When Hudson River School landscape artist Thomas Moran accurately depicted the beauty and grandeur of the area that became Yellowstone National Park his critics accused him of lying and gross exaggeration.

Moran, who was not lying at all, was a member of the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871. Its efforts helped to set aside pristine areas for future generations.

We now fast forward to Erika Osborne’s wonderfully painted 4- by 8-foot “Looking for Moran” mural at the museum. Her oil on canvas awestruck view of a vast canyon is bracketed by three tour buses in the foreground. The painting is part of a new series titled “Manifest Destiny” that chronicles what we have done with Moran and his compatriots’ legacy.

Osborne pulls the stops on her impressive talent in “The Chasm of Bingham,” a gorgeously rendered open pit mine. Like Moran, Osborne is a truth teller. Unfortunately the truth has changed.

A while back I was invited to visit B.C. Nowlin’s North Valley studio, where he showed me a series of new paintings that he had been keeping under wraps. They were shockingly different from his former efforts.

Nowlin is known for his culturally ambiguous horse-and-rider scenes at dawn or sunset that are touched by surrealism. Tranquility would be an easy one-word description of his previous paintings.

Hold on to your rocker, Grandma, Nowlin is now painting train wrecks, burning tractor trailers and all sorts of other scenes of mass destruction.

The museum is showing Nowlin’s “Violet,” a very nicely rendered 5- by 7-foot landscape filled with smoking wreckage in the midst of a mountain range. Moran would have liked Nowlin’s billowing clouds and dramatic presentation but would have been appalled by his requiem for the wilderness aspect.

In this here-to-fore hidden series Nowlin has come into his own as an artist. Though he was making a living with his early work he is now making art worthy of a museum collection. What he really had under wraps was his true calling.

Wes Hempel offers “Counterthesis” to the fray. Hempel is a skillful realist who blends philosophy, mythology and contemporary social issues into beautifully painted scenes that tease the brain.

In “Counterthesis” Hempel uses a theatrical composition to depict industrial menace, the human element, religiosity and a wonderful landscape on a sunny day. Two male figures occupy the foreground. One is a minister with hands held up in prayer, the other is in a fighter’s pose with clenched fists and a sparing stance.

The minister stands on a cast concrete bunker inside of a small triangle described by barbed wire strung between two steel fence posts and a miniature church steeple. Two dead and leafless trees bracket the scene like drawn curtains.

The quiet scene is rife with portent regarding our future on the land, the war on nature triggered by western European religious philosophy and what kind of stewardship we have wrought.

There are many more extremely well-done works in the show by artists ranging from Gus Foster, Woody Gywn, Amelia Bauer, Joanne Lefrak, Patrick Nagatani, Donald Woodman, Ed Ruscha and Mary Tsiongas to Vincent Valdez.

If you feel disoriented, listen to Jack Loeffer’s beautifully assembled “Soundscape” audio tracks that are guaranteed to bring you to ground again.

Trying to review a show this dense and complex is much like trying to describe a huge lake by skipping a pebble across the surface. Viewers should plan on spending many hours over multiple visits to take in the array of offerings all over the museum. There are other shows that link to this one and viewers are invited to contrast and compare.

This collection of shows is an accomplishment worth applauding with kudos to Wright, curator Andrew Connors and their crew. By the way, I was joshing about L’Amour – I’ve read them all.

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