ART REVIEW : ‘Western States’ Shows a Murky View of the State of the Sun Belt

Times Art Writer

Artistic independence is said to be the tie that binds the works in the “Third Western States Exhibition” at the Palm Springs Desert Museum, but that isn’t the only common characteristic. Despair rushes out to meet unsuspecting visitors, while nostalgia for the Old West lurks around the corner.

Like the last two “Western States Exhibitions,” this traveling show is sponsored by the Western States Arts Foundation and a major art institution, in this case the Brooklyn Museum. Charlotta Kotik, curator of contemporary art at Brooklyn, selected 45 artists from about 500 nominated by professionals in 14 Western states. The intent of the exhibition program is to bring attention to “artists not normally recognized outside their regions.”

One may quibble about the inclusion of such well-known artists as Deborah Butterfield, Melissa Miller, Eileen Cowin and Bob Wade, but none of them has been overexposed. Kotik has put together a lively show that does indeed demonstrate freedom from East Coast strictures, but she often seems to equate that independence with wretched excess.

Sherry Markovitz, for example, is free to coat a papier-mache moose head with beaded patterns and gold foil. Charlotte Bender is sufficiently liberated to load up a painting with “1,000 Uses for Cactus.” Time after time, one finds expressionistic works crawling with detail or writhing in contemporary anguish.


Robert D. Cocke depicts a futile tug-of-war amid a burned-out landscape in a canvas called “Continental Drift,” while Bender’s “Starry Night” features a freeway gunman. Melissa Miller, an extraordinarily gifted painter, offers juicy, apocalyptic scenes of a bird picking at a pumpkin’s carcass or macabre “fruit bats” dancing around a papaya.

Charles Pique borrows from Hundertwasser as he invents an evil “Juke Box City” that resembles a gooey wedding cake. Janis Provisor paints a scene that might have been inspired by an oily swamp, while Jose Luis Rodriguez points an accusing finger at “The Human Condition” in a drawing of a bulbous figure in a sort of interrogation chamber.

“This isn’t the happiest exhibit I’ve seen,” said a woman conducting two youngsters through the show. Nor should it be, but after a while this sort of independence tends to look a lot like conformity.

The gloomy tone is, of course, a predictable manifestation of the Expressionism that has infiltrated art throughout the country. Nothing wrong with that, until it starts to look like a programmed attitude. “Western States” gives the impression that the right way to think among artists out West is the reverse of President Reagan’s blind optimism.


Expressionistic doom and Baroque overkill have not corraled all the artists in “Western States,” however. There’s a gaggle of cowboys and loners--a silhouetted figure painted by Gary E. Smith, a shadowy pair in a photograph by Douglas Kent Hall and a Red Grooms-ish cartoon cutout by Audrey Roll-Preissler.

Wood sculpture by the late Boyd Wright and Patrick Zentz’s inventive musical instruments exemplify the obsessive craftsmanship often attributed to artists who work outside the “mainstream.” An eclectic group of photography includes such strong images as Mark Daughhetee’s eerie tableau illustrating “The Sin of Gluttony,” Marsha Burns’ bound figures and Gay Block’s disturbing views of old people in Florida.

Funded by Philip Morris Companies Inc. and the National Endowment for the Arts, the “Third Western States Exhibition” is in Palm Springs, to Jan. 10. The show’s seventh and final engagement is at the San Jose Museum of Art, Feb. 5 to April 3.