The West's Present: Western Contemporary Art

By local contributor
Jennifer Duffy

Much of the learning experience about the American West and the early days of Arizona can be done through the lens of history and traditional art, which depicts the lives of Native Americans and pioneers. But contemporary artists are putting a fresh spin on established interpretations the American West.

 


MONUMENT TO THE OLD WEST


In the roundabout at Main Street and Marshall Way in Old Town you’ll find Jack Knife, an eight-foot-high bronze sculpture by legendary artist Ed Mell. This monumental piece depicts a rider on a bucking horse and is an iconic example of contemporary art telling the story of the traditional Western way of life.   

"Jack Knife has a reverence for the Old West,” said Mell, an Arizona native who completed the work in 1993. “It is not traditional, but yet it has a traditional theme. The angularity accelerates the power and energy of the rider and horse more than an accurate depiction would.".  

The piece, originally sized as a small table-top sculpture, is oft-rumored to be a representation of the City of Scottsdale’s official seal, although that was not what Mell had in mind at its inception.

“I wasn’t thinking, ‘this is a contemporary approach’ as much as I was thinking, ‘this is my approach,” Mell said, adding that his affinity for angular and geometric shapes is rooted in his admiration of modern artists of the 1920s and 30s in Taos, New Mexico.

 


WHERE OLD AND NEW COLLIDE


Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West is one place where history and contemporary art meet to tell a story. The museum houses historical art, as seen in the exhibit Courage & Crossroads: A Visual Journey Through the Early American West, as well as a contemporary gallery with rotating work, including the exhibit Confluence of Cultures in the American West: A Selection of Contemporary Artists.

“The museum offers visitors the unique opportunity to participate in a full and rich story about the American experience through a diversity of narratives,” said. Dr. Tricia Loscher, Assistant Museum Director.

“While historical artworks look back into American history, our contemporary gallery features art and stories that look forward.  It includes pieces like John Moyers’ Caught Between Two Worlds, which is a poignant painting of an elaborately dressed Native American wrapped in an American flag with a soda can nearby.”

The museum’s exhibit Western Edge: Humor and Playfulness in Contemporary Western Art, features work on loan from Wilde Meyer Gallery, nearby in Old Town Scottsdale, with an eye for current Western scenes.

It includes several pieces from Stephen Morath, whose art is a dynamic contrast and harmony between the beauties and the oddities of the Southwest. Sunset at the Arizona Line, an acrylic on canvas that will return home to the gallery when the exhibit concludes, juxtaposes the state’s outrageous topography with the iconography of tourist traps and honky-tonk strips. It also tells a deeper story of a clash of cultures in the Arizona desert and illustrates the places where Indian America meets the science fiction of the 1950’s, explained a representative from the gallery.

“It’s not all sparkling deserts and birds in the morning,” a gallery representative said, “but it’s the tension between the spectacular beauty of the land with the influx of popular culture that makes things even more interesting.”

 


WHERE TO SEE (AND BUY) CONTEMPORARY WESTERN ART


Wilde Meyer Gallery

J Klein Gallery

Tilt Gallery

Gebert Gallery