The New West

Solar Pond by Emmi Whitehorse painting southwest art.
Solar Pond by Emmi Whitehorse

By Donald J. Hagerty

This article is an excerpt from Leading the West—100 Contemporary Painters and Sculptors [1997 Northland Publishing, Flagstaff, AZ] by Donald J. Hagerty, a 224-page book illustrated with 175 color reproductions; foreword by Susan Hallsten McGarry.

Now more urban than rural, the New West seethes with a mosaic of highways, dams, bland suburban tracts, instant malls, sterile industrial parks, and military facilities—a plastic and neon topography. Within this new rapidly fluctuating, commercialized human landscape, subject to change without notice, artists struggle to distill iconic meaning from the legacy and implied promise of the West, with new twists if possible.

New Mexico artist Page Allen envisions herself as the spiritual descendant of those early modern artists clustered around Alfred Stieglitz: Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, and Marsden Hartley. Like them, she paints a visible world, and like them, she seeks something invisible, something spiritual, in her art. In her oils, watercolors, and monotypes, Allen doesn’t imitate the look of nature but rather attempts to discover a spiritual path through the use of myth, metaphor, symbols, and stories.

Blue Highways by Page Allen painting, southwest art.
Blue Highways by Page Allen

Allen often uses the metaphor of roads, which she believes represent the ongoing, perhaps endless, human journey. In paintings such as Blue Highways, the western landscape is bisected by a pristine road that disappears over the horizon, with the overall image painted in intense colors. For Allen, who strives to intensify sensory experiences, roads through empty landscapes offer the possibility of epic journeys, along with the choice to leave or stay.

Arizonan Anne Coe is known for artworks that combine narratives of exaggerated landscapes with stylized animals—Godzilla-size gila monsters, coyotes drag-racing pink Cadillacs, or fez-wearing monkeys. Coe lifts concepts from western art and introduces humor, manipulates her idiosyncratic images to fabricate parody, and sometimes confronts viewers with blatant irony.

Coe’s imaginative art explores the interface between the wild desert and urban life through the mocking humor of outrageous situations such as Suburban Ranchette: Utopian Bliss at the End of the Millennium. The civilized content of suburban life is disrupted by Coe’s inclusion of a cowgirl astride a horse and a longhorn steer next to the swimming pool. “I have always used humor as a vehicle for my messages,” Coe says. Part of her Chronicles of the Millennium series, the painting is a response to our times at the end of the century. Her vision for this painting arises from the “American Dream” north of Scottsdale, AZ, where everyone rushes to purchase their part of the desert. “Yes, people can live in the desert, but the cost is an acre an hour taken by development. At times we need to evaluate where we are and where we are going,” Coe says.

Suburban Ranchette: Utopian Bliss at the End of the Millennium by Anne Coe painting, southwest art.
Suburban Ranchette: Utopian Bliss at the End of the Millennium by Anne Coe

Emmi Whitehorse finds motivation for her art in the mysterious and the enigmatic. Born in Crownpoint, NM, on the Navajo reservation, Whitehorse attended a government boarding school as a youngster and spent her time drawing horses, people everything and anything she encountered.

Whitehorse’s work is an orchestration of abstract approaches and formal assemblages of organic, amoeba-like forms. She calls these paintings “scribbles” made-up images yet one perceives leaf shapes, animal footprints, and spirals similar to ancient petroglyphs. Whitehorse considers her paintings dreams, which she plumbs in order to paint on canvas or paper what has transpired in her mind. The work reflects her deep interest in nature and the land; that interest leads her to create small worlds with her imagery.

Recently Whitehorse has ventured beyond the Native American mythology that infused her earlier work into more dreamlike, expressive states. “A painting takes on its own persona,” she says. “The choice of colors is random, and the titles come after the work is completed.” Still, recognizable symbols bob and float: a snake, seed pods, and fragments of a leaf are embedded in works such as Solar Pond. Perhaps there is a supernatural world in Whitehorse’s mind and the symbols reproduced in her paintings echo signs from long-lost spirits.

Featured in November 1997