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Land of Color and Enchantment: The Southwestern Art Collection of Charles and Jeanette Gilchrist White
September 22 - November 9, 2008
Peoria native Jeanette Gilchrist White and her husband Charles first felt the allure of the American Southwest in the 1960s as a place with excellent springtime skiing. They quickly recognized the beauty of the landscape and interest in inhabitants that began attracting artists to the Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, areas in the 1890s: healthy, clear air, brilliant sunlight, adobe architecture, vast landscapes, and the charming culture of the Native Americans. The Southwest drew the Whites back year after year with increasing frequency, and before long they focused less on skiing and more on exploring the many art galleries and fairs in Taos and Santa Fe. The two communities combined represent the second largest concentration of practicing artists -- and complementary art galleries -- out of the New York City, making area rich in opportunities to acquire some of the finest Southwestern art.
The White's growing passion for the art of the Southwest led them to make the first of many purchases of works by Frank Howell. That purchase was the seed for what is by now an extensive and varied collection of paintings, prints and sculptures by dozens of artists with Native heritages and/or Anglo backgrounds who have been active from the 1920s to the present.
The majority of the 46 artists represented by 104 works in this exhibition are among the most active and well-known artists working in the Southwest today. The paintings range from small, intimate works that cause the viewer to stop and draw closer to study them slowly to large works suggestive of the expansive landscapes they depict.
The first artists stumbled upon New Mexico in 1898, having set out from Denver in search of romantic and picturesque subjects to paint, such as European artists were finding in Italy and Spain. They found something as fine, if not better, in the mountain ranges, vast plateaus, sharp blue sky and adobe houses. Rather than keeping this beauty to themselves, they wrote home about it, and used their artistic skills to help promote the area through railroad posters and travel brochures.
A group of seven artists trained in New York and Europe founded the Taos Society of Artists in 1915, and although it disbanded in 1927, it is recognized as one of the most celebrated American artists' colonies of the early 20th century. The general purpose of the Society was to stimulate interest in art and promote the works of its members through traveling exhibits "back East." It attracted many other artists eager to shed the sense of cultural inferiority long prevalent among Americans and create a truly American art based on authentic American subject matter. What could do that better than the distinctive Southwestern landscape and the Indian people who populated it? It was not lost on these men and women that they could capture on canvas the vanishing lifestyle of the native peoples as well as dwindling wildlife populations. The Santa Fe Railway Co. commissioned those early artists to produce artwork for use in posters and travel literature to actively promote tourism in the Southwest.
(above: Frank Howell, American, 1937-1997, Word Weaver, 1978, mixed media on canvas)
One important member of the Taos Society of Artists was William Victor Higgins (1884-1949), an Indiana native who studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Academy of Art between 1899 and 1908, and settled in Taos in 1914. His great-niece Tricia Higgins Hurt received her first art lessons from him along with lots of encourage-ment to create her own art. Higgins brought friends such as Georgia O'Keeffe to visit the young girl's home in Virginia and their discussions of the beauty and excitement of the Southwest sparked an interest in her that drew her westward in her own time. Like many artists in the White collection, Hurt paints stylized landscapes that evoke the feeling of being within the expansive and colorful space.
(above: Tricia Higgins Hurt, American, born 1930, Heading West (#2), undated, oil on canvas)
Contemporary Indian artists, many of whom are represented in the White Collection, address social, political and artistic issues that parallel the complexity of Native American life in the modern world. Each artist makes a personal statement about these issues. Art has been a part of Indian cultures in many ways, some of which were decorative or purely ornamental and some which were symbolic or embodied aspects of the belief systems of that culture. Baskets and pottery are just two of the functional forms that Indian women traditionally decorated; dance and song are other important traditional forms of Indian art. Present day artists of Indian ancestry often adapt and combine older modes of artistic expression with current trends, producing art that is innovative, challenging and expressive. Many use traditional symbols, paying tribute to their heritage and reconfirming their belief in their people, without divulging secret rituals and legends.
Gregory Lomayesva, who can claim both Hopi and Hispanic ancestors, is a young artist who draws inspiration from both cultures in his woodcarvings and large paintings, both of which are represented in this exhibit. He constantly explores new ideas and new media, producing highly personal and very colorful work.
(above: Gregory Lomayesva, Hopi and Hispanic, born 1971, Large Mask, undated, wood, feathers, antlers, acrylic paint)
Adobe architecture has played a part in the allure of the Southwest along with the native cultures -- 100 years ago the idea of seeing a different culture and "exotic" way of life without leaving the country stirred excitement in many minds. The Ranchos Church, constructed of adobe in 1815 in Ranchos de Taos (an Hispanic community 2 miles south of Taos), has provided spiritual and artistic inspiration to natives and tourists alike. Like an enormous sculpture, the building changes as the light shifts, affording intriguing artistic studies evoking the long traditions of the local land and people. Many other adobe buildings also find their way into contemporary paintings. JK Lamkin was the first Southwest artist to depict such architecture in bright colors ranging from brilliant yellows and oranges to magenta and purples. The effect is to heighten the sense of clear, bright light as well as the sculptural qualities of the architecture itself.
(above: JK Lamkin, American, born 1933, Viga Shadows #90, acrylic on canvas)
Works in the White Collection cover the full range from realism to abstraction, just as 20th century artists in other parts of this country explored all manner of expression. Many of the abstract artists, such as Dick Evans, use color and texture to convey the shape of the landscape and the special color and light that permeates the atmosphere there. Abstraction provides these artists with a significant way to go beyond merely recording what they see, to express their emotional reaction to the Southwestern environment and let the viewer share the intensity and power of the experience.
For anyone who has experienced the saturated colors and brilliant sunlight of the American Southwest, Land of Color and Enchantment: The Southwestern Art Collection of Charles and Jeanette Gilchrist White should evoke their sensations and feelings during their time there. For visitors who have not yet traveled to New Mexico, the exhibition provides a taste of what one feels when immersed in the Southwestern landscape, among the colorful traditions of that region. All who experience the exhibition will be enchanted by the diversity and the joy of the works the Whites have collected and now so generously share.
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