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Face to Face: Portraits and the American West

January 22, 2011 - Early May, 2011



Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter
- Oscar Wilde

The American West is a big place, both geographically and metaphorically. Ever since George Catlin ventured up the Missouri River in 1832, artists have been exploring both realms of the territory. They have told the stories of the West from many different perspectives and they continue to tell an ever-increasing number of stories today. For many artists, the natural beauty and grandeur of the western landscape became the primary focus of their work. Others were more interested in presenting scenes of action and high adventure. Many artists, though, have drawn their artistic inspiration from a deep and plentiful source, one that seems inexhaustible in its diversity, complexity and variety -- the people of the West. When we look into the faces of the people that countless artists have portrayed in an attempt to capture some essence of their personalities, we can read a sort of history of the American West; if we listen closely we can hear individual stories of hopes and dreams, of disappointments and triumphs, stories of survival against great odds, tales of heroism and cowardice, tales of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. In short, we get a glimpse of the enormity of the West and its multi-faceted cultures, and we do it often by looking into a single face that conveys a whole world of experience. Whether that face belongs to a proud Native American warrior surveying his hunting ground from a peak in the Rocky Mountains, or a modern cowboy who has just finished a hard day's work, or a drifter down on his luck and searching for his next meal, these portraits tell us much about the subject, the world that he or she lives in and, in some ways, something about ourselves.

Those portraits also tell us a great deal about the artists who made them. Ultimately, each artist chooses what to paint, what subject to mold with clay, which stories to tell. What they choose and how they choose to portray those subjects tell us as much about the artist as they do about the subject. George Catlin and Alfred Jacob Miller had hundreds of subjects to choose from on their early forays into the American wilderness. Gordon Snidow and Donna Howell-Sickels, two modern interpreters of the West, are able to choose from a wide panorama of both contemporary and historic subjects. The fact that these artists and all of the others represented in this exhibition chose to focus their considerable artistic talent and energy to present images of people, some real and some made whole out of the cloth of their imagination, tells us much about who these artists are. In their work, they are telling the stories of the people they depict; they reveal, in many different ways, the surface realities of these individual lives and, also, the hidden nuances of character, the things that the sitters may not know or want to reveal. But these works of art also reveal the character and individual histories of the artists themselves. Some, like Native American artists, Juane Quick-to-see-Smith and Rick Bartow, do so consciously by weaving their own personal histories into the faces and figures on their canvases. Others, like photographers Kurt Markus and Barbara Van Cleve, seem to take an objective and somewhat removed standpoint by focusing their cameras on modern cowboys and ranch women but, here too, the choice of subject tells us much about the photographers. The moments they choose to capture, the details that they decide to include or omit, the setting, and even the time of day, also can reveal something about the character of the artist.

The story of the great American West or, to be more precise, the many, many stories of the West, are all here to explore. Those stories are written on the faces of the West.


(above : Donna Howell Sickles, Pigs in a Blanket, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Loaned by Davis & Blevins, The Main Street Gallery.)


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checklist, please click here

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

and biographical information on artists cited in this article in America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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