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Published January 26, 2024
Take a fresh look at the art of the American West at the UW Art Museum with guest curator Robert Martinez.
By Michelle Sunset, Curator
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the University of Wyoming Art Museum is looking both inward and outward, exploring its Western American art collection with guest curator Robert Martinez. Funded by the prestigious Terra Foundation for American Art, “The New West” exhibition is modeled after artist Fred Wilson’s iconic “Mining the Museum” (1992) installation at the Maryland Historical Society. In this exhibition, Wilson placed historical objects in new contexts to invite dialogue about the role of museums and their representation of race and culture through collection, display and interpretation. He intervened in the space by devising stark juxtapositions, such as placing slave shackles in a vitrine alongside a silver service set to call attention to racial disparities that were not previously explored in the institution. Because many visitors arrive at the UW Art Museum expecting to see Western American art — cowboys, mountainous and prairie landscapes and wildlife — curators worked with Martinez to develop an exhibition that challenges the viewers to interrogate their perceptions of what Western art is and broaden their understanding of the region.
Martinez was born in Riverton, Wyo. He grew up a part of many different cultures, as his lineage is Spanish, Mexican, Scotts Irish, French Canadian and Northern Arapaho. Martinez’s own work uses the historical imagery, myths and stories of the West and Indigenous cultures combined with modern themes to create dynamic thought-provoking images. Not only have his paintings and drawings garnered acclaim across the country, but Martinez also has dedicated time and energy to supporting arts education through mentorship and workshops across Wyoming.
UW Art Museum curators collaborated with Martinez to develop themes, select objects and design interventions that would inspire visitors to reconsider their understanding of Western art. The resulting exhibition spans several galleries, the Rotunda and the Wyoming Gallery Theater. Works of Western art that are considered historical or traditional are paired with contemporary works, and several artworks are presented with alternative titles. Museum preparators brought Martinez’s vision to life through installations such as the transposing of a teepee and a pumpjack over Kerswill’s romanticized landscape painting “Land of the Big Sky.”
Martinez says: “The perspective of Indigenous people is most often homogenized or completely omitted. There are many tribal nations who call ‘the West’ home. They have a wealth of specific knowledge and individual stories about their cultures, the land, the wildlife and the ecosystem. That authentic knowledge was — and continues to be — ignored in most mainstream art venues. ‘The New West’ challenges you to change your mindset and note whose perspective is missing — whose story was not being told and why.”
Visit the UW Art Museum to explore “The New West: The University of Wyoming Art Museum at Fifty,” on view through May 18, 2024.