Morris Museum of Art

Augusta, Georgia



Western Perspectives: Wilson Hurley and George Carlson

April 19 - August 12, 2001


American artists have interpreted and celebrated the West for over a century and a half, drawn by the grandeur of the land, the rich traditions of the indigenous cultures, and the drama of daily life on the frontier. The earliest artists were both explorers and reporters, bringing back from the wilderness interior images that often provided the first glimpses Eastern audiences had of the region. Artists accompanied many government mapping and scientific expeditions that explored and documented such spectacular regions as Yellowstone and Yosemite. Later artists chronicled the rapid changes brought by the great flow of western migration. In each step of the history of the West, from the fur trappers and buffalo hunters to the flamboyant cowboys, from the inevitable conflicts between indigenous peoples of the West and the immigrants who were seeking to establish new communities, the artist was there to create indelible images that have become part of the American experience.

In the last fifty years Western art has enjoyed an expanding audience and a growing market of appreciative collectors. This rise in popularity is due in no small part to the continuing vitality of the West as a subject in popular media, ranging from vintage Hollywood westerns to the 1999 release of the movie Wild Wild West. Of equal import is the rise in popularity of regional approaches to the study of art. Across the country museums and research centers dedicated to the study of regional art have emerged during this time period. The Morris Museum of Art, dedicated to the research, exhibition, and interpretation of Southern art, and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum are but two examples.

This exhibition brings together the work of two distinctive Western artists, Wilson Hurley and George Carlson. Their works reflect the Western artist's continuing interest in the majestic landscape and rich indigenous cultures of the West. The western vistas of Wilson Hurley beg comparison with the sublime paintings of the West by America's first school of landscape painting, the Hudson River School. George Carlson's sculptures of the Tarahumara, an indigenous people of northern Mexico, are linked in part to the work of earlier Western artists, including Frederic Remington, who rendered their impressions of Native Americans in three dimensions.

The works of art in this exhibition are on loan courtesy of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Founded in 1965, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum was originally conceived as a tribute to the men and women who helped establish the West as an integral part of America's cultural heritage. The permanent collection of the museum, which is located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, includes significant works by artists associated with the West, including Charles Russell, Frederic Remington, and Albert Bierstadt. The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, based in Ardmore, Oklahoma, ranks as one of the 60 largest private, charitable foundations in the United States.

George Carlson

A native of Illinois, George Carlson (b. 1940) studied at the American Academy of Art in Chicago and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After working as an illustrator for several years, he moved to the Southwest and studied sculpture and anthropology at the University of Arizona. Considered a specialist in the Western genre, Carlson has exhibited his paintings and sculptures across the United States and internationally. He has won numerous awards, including the Prix de West and several Gold Medals from the National Academy of Western Art in Oklahoma City. (left: George Carlson, Spear Fisherman)

Carlson spent many years studying and living on various Indian reservations in the American West. In 1973 he traveled south of the border to Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental to live with the Tarahumara. A native people who live in northern Mexico, the Tarahumara are considered one of the few indigenous groups in North America that have been able to preserve their traditional style of life almost unmodified by three and a half centuries of contact with European populations. On this and subsequent visits, Carlson stayed with the Tarahumara for several months at a time, making wax sculptures that he later refined in his studio. Although an outsider, he gradually fit into this fairly isolated society by not, as he said, "pushing the river." Carlson also painted the Tarahumara in oils and pastels. (right: George Carlson, Old Woman of Choguita)

Carlson's attraction to this uncontaminated indigenous people is strong.

The Tarahumara way of life is truly something special. Under the heel of civilization, this unadorned and unpretentious culture would be lost. As long as the scent of the primeval world, of instinct, and of nature remains, the world will be a possible place for the artist, beautiful and full of promise. This world, a little place in Old Mexico, is in itself work of art to be treasured and preserved as a priceless masterpiece.

Carlson blends the representational and the abstract in his sculpture. He foregoes the depiction of details in his work, opting to reveal, in his own words, the "life force within." While his choice of subject matter has been linked to the West, his abstracted style distinguishes his work from the genre of contemporary Southwestern art and places it within a larger realm.

The Tarahumara

The Tarahumara, or Raramuri, as they prefer to call themselves, are an indigenous people of northwest Mexico. They live in small communities on the plateaus and in the ravines and canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental, a beautiful but inhospitable region of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Of Uto-Aztecan linguistic stock, the Tarahumara are also linked to the Ute, Shoshone, and Hopi of the American West, as well as the speakers of the Nahuatl languages in Mexico and Central America. The name that they call themselves, "the Raramuri," literally means "foot runners;" they call themselves this because of the excessive running that they do along the mountains. Not only a means of transportation and communication in their rugged environment, running is also a sport in which villages compete against each other. (left: George Carlson, River's Edge)

While many of the approximately 50,000 ethnic Tarahumara reside in permanent communities or have been assimilated into Mexican towns, several thousand maintain a migratory lifestyle, descending into the canyons and ravines during the winter months to tend fruit orchards and returning to higher, more temperate altitudes to practice subsistence farming during the summer months. Their clothes also remain traditional: the men wear a breechcloth and a wool girdle around their waists, with cotton shirts and headbands, while women wear multiple skirts and full sleeved blouses, accompanied by a bandana and a shawl around their backs for carrying things.

Today the Tarahumara are one of the largest indigenous societies in North America. High birth rates, closely knit community structures, and a relatively balanced diet have enabled them to survive in a sometimes harsh climate. Today the greatest challenges to the Tarahumara lifeway come in the form of tourism that is beginning to burgeon in this region of Mexico and in the migration of the young to Mexican cities.

Wilson Hurley

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Wilson Hurley (b. 1924) spent his childhood in Oklahoma, Virginia, and New Mexico. Hurley's father, a lawyer who later became Hoover's secretary of war, wanted his son to pursue a military career and sent him to West Point, where he earned an engineering degree. After serving in World War II as an aviator, Hurley received a law degree from George Washington University, and for the next 13 years he practiced law in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He left the legal profession to paint full-time in 1964. A founding member of the National Academy of Western Art, Hurley is considered one of the Southwest's most prominent landscape painters. (left: Wilson Hurley, California Suite)

Hurley is known for his sophisticated use of color and light and his mastery in depicting the atmospheric effects of sweeping Western landscape vistas.

I think the first thing that fascinated me about the West was the direct light.... When you paint in this country, you have the direct wash of light from the sun, the bounced light, and the mild, cold wash of light from the top of the sky. ... To show the beauty of the sun reaching and really hitting some object could be likened to the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio... applied to landscape.

The paintings on display are studies for Windows To The West, a monumental series of five triptychs, or three-panel paintings, commissioned by the Noble Foundation and installed in the Sam Noble Special Events Center of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. The triptychs, each measuring nearly 40 feet wide and 16 feet tall, celebrate the magnificence of five distinctive landscapes of the American Southwest: the lower falls of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, the Pacific Ocean at Point Lobos, California, the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico with the Rio Grande in the foreground, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and Utah's Monument Valley. (left: Wilson Hurley, New Mexico Suite)

In an effort to unify the Windows To The West series, Hurley depicted each landscape at sunset and with a common horizon line. His goal in painting the series was to "unify the room while opening it visually and psychologically" while transporting the viewers "to these beautiful places." The final triptych of the series, which was begun in 1991, was hung in place in August 1996. (left: Wilson Hurley, Utah Suite)


Subsequest exhibition regarding George Carlson

At the The Denver Art Museum George Carlson: Heart of the West opened in late 2007. The museum said of the exhibit:

The Denver Art Museum adds to its exciting exhibition lineup when George Carlson: Heart of the West opens December 15 in the Hamilton Building's Dietler Western Art Galleries. The exhibition will feature the work of living artist and former Coloradoan George Carlson, considered one of the finest sculptors of western subject matter working today. He is widely known for his sensitive interpretation of animals, especially horses, in bronze. His figurative work features a number of subjects including the Tarahumara Indian tribe in Mexico, with whom he lived. Several pastel drawings from his journeys to Mexico will also be displayed.
"We think he is an artist who has stood the test of time," says Ann Daley, Associate Curator of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum. "He doesn't like to be considered a western artist, but we think he is appropriate. We've admired his work for a long time, and think he is due an exhibition."
George Carlson: Heart of the West will feature more than 35 objects from several lenders including the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, works owned by a private Colorado collector, and the artist's studio. The exhibition will be on view through April 13, 2008.
In addition, George Carlson's work is highlighted in the latest issue of Western Passages, published by the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum. "Heart of the West: New Painting and Sculpture of the American West" includes essays on George Carlson, collecting Western American art, the Museum's Contemporary Realism Group, artist-explorers and the Western landscape, and full color illustrations.
The Petrie Institute will also present a symposium titled Heart of the West: New Art/New Thinking on January 5, 2008, at the Denver Art Museum. This one-day symposium will explore multiple perspectives on contemporary western American art. Four prominent American art scholars, curators, and museum directors will discuss topics including modernism vs. realism in early 20th century western painting, museum roles in balancing popular art with elitist institutional imperatives, status of contemporary western art today, and post-modernist conceptions of the West.

rev. 1/17/08

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Morris Museum of Art in Resource Library.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.