The mythic West conjures sweeping vistas, fiery sunsets, towering mountains, laconic cowboys on their trusty steeds, peaceful herds of buffalo, a noble Native American or two -- and that's about it. Or so you might assume after a visit to Representing the West at the Sangre de Cristo Arts & Conference Center in Pueblo.
For the show, which intends to become "a national annual invitational exhibition of traditional representational art in a realist tradition," juror Mindy Besaw (an associate curator at the Denver Art Museum) selected more than 100 pieces by 25 artists.
The works are competent, and some pieces are brilliantly executed. But with a few exceptions (notably Michelle Torrez' "Modern Cowgirl"), these 'realist' works are not realistic at all.
For instance, Tim Diebler's stunning Winter Light, a view of East Spanish Peak, is a beautiful rendition of a familiar landscape, but elements are missing. There are no roads, no power lines, no cars, no dwellings, no people. It's an Edenic, pre-contact landscape, a dream of the past.
The West most of these artists seek to represent doesn't exist, other than in cropped picture-postcard view. Frank LaLumia's "Grizzly Country," featuring a mounted horseman leading a horse across a gleaming mountain stream, speaks to sensibility that informed sporting magazines like Field & Stream in the 1950s.
This nostalgic view of the West directly descends from artists such as Bierstadt and Moran, whose enormous canvases glamorized the American West as a land of primeval innocence.
They may be harmless and benign. After all, who wouldn't want a peaceful, romantic landscape in the living room as a reminder of times long past? Lots of us would, which is why so many competent artists choose to work in the genre. But these works, so serene and untroubled, can be as similar to serious Western art as pornography is to actual sex.
That's why it was such a relief to spend some time with Carolyn Hoyle's large-scale paintings, on view in the entrance galleries at the SDC through Nov. 12.
Hoyle, a Colorado native in her early 60s and a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been making serious art for decades. Like her contemporary, Chuck Forsman, she paints romantic, beautiful landscapes of today's American West, warts and all.
In Hoyle's hands, a Wyoming granite quarry is as beautiful as a pristine wilderness. "East of I-25," a lyrical rendition of a road, gently rolling plains, a pulled-over pickup and a dog trotting along, magically evokes our own time and place.
In "Western Water," an elevated view of a family peering down at a vast water project -- dams, sluices, spillways, pipelines -- Hoyle shows us what we've done to this once-pristine land, but also the beauty and necessity of our work. She doesn't have an obvious agenda. She shows us what's there, or what she imagines is there.
Hoyle is as technically skilled as any of the artists in Representing the West, and hers is a thoughtful, dazzling and original vision that owes little to the tired clichs of "Western art."
-- John Hazlehurst
Representing the West and Carolyn Hoyle's paintings
Sangre de Cristo Arts & Conference Center, 210 N. Santa Fe Ave., Pueblo
Show runs through Oct. 29 (Hoyle through Nov. 12); open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
Call 719/295-7200 or visit sdc-arts.org for more.