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Cowboy Land Comes to China
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A visitor to the National Art Museum of China passes by American painter Duke Beardsley's oil piece Heading West. 
American painter Chuck Forsman's Lines of Site has a bleak landscape bisected by a winding highway.

"I love it (the West)," said Forsman who was born in western Idaho in the great outback called "the West".

"I love the whole dry, forbidding, bewildering, and hauntingly beautiful place. But I have a lover's quarrel with the way we have made of it. It is so void of trees and dry here that little is hidden. When we err, it glares, and what we see, looking honestly, sobers us. Beauty and honesty are uneasy bedfellows.

"Still, I try to make honest pictures that are also beautiful because it is still the landscape of hope."

Such is the kind of honesty on display at the National Art Museum of China where Out West: The Great American Landscapes, a major contemporary art show from and about the American West is being held.

Presented in mild light on the third floor of the museum, the more than 100 paintings, prints, photographs and vintage Western posters recreate the American West about which Chinese viewers know mostly through novels and Western movies.

The exhibition coincides with the mammoth Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation exhibition which ended on Thursday in Beijing.

While Art in America chronicled how American art evolved into what it is today, Out West "allows viewers to further explore the wealth of American art, especially human history and the unique landscape of the cowboy states," said Fan Di'an, director of the National Art Museum of China which is co-organizing the show with the Meridian International Center and the National Geographic Museum.

Out West is part of a cultural exchange begun in 2004 by Ancient Threads, Newly Woven, an exhibition designed for American audiences and organized by Meridian and the China International Exhibition Agency on contemporary art from the Silk Road of Western China.

Out West presents 68 paintings by 54 artists from seven states: Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

The subject matter ranges from traditional mountain and desert landscapes, iconic scenes of costumed American Indians and cowboys on horseback, to portraits of wildlife and abstract images that have a more contemporary feel.

"Some of the works on display are created by the artists particularly for the China tour," Meridian's Nancy Matthews told China Daily.

Accompanying the Out West exhibition are some 40 contemporary images of the American West by 25 renowned photographers such as William Albert Allard and Sam Abell, grouped under the title Under the Big Sky: Images of the American West. 

Spanning the past 30 years, the photos include native Americans, cowboys and cactuses, buffalo, cattle and elk, farming activities, rodeo riders, Havasu Falls and Canyon de Chelly, among many other American West scenes, said Susan E. Norton with the National Geographic Museum and curator for the photo display.

The American nation began to expand westward during the mid-1800s. Owing to differences in culture and history, the White settlers and the native American Indians perceived the West in different ways, said Amy Scott, a curator with Autry National Centre, Los Angeles.

The White settlers saw the vast spaces in proprietary terms. But for many natives, the land was "not something to control and carve up, but a storied place in which the experience of generations was inscribed. In this sense, land could be inviting and dangerous, generous in abundance or spiteful in its scarcity," writes Scott in a catalogue for the exhibition.

"Native people knew both aspects of the land well, as part of a cyclical and regenerative world. American Indians to this day have a great reverence for nature, the land, and the animals whose habitat it is."

The idea of the West "as a vibrant artistic place inscribed with multiple meanings is at the heart of the exhibition", she added.

The first American eastern artists had attached both religious and political meaning to the spectacular western lands, portraying them as natural riches available for those citizens spiritually and morally worthy of America's destiny.

However, "an over-simplified, icon-driven approach adopted by an earlier generation of American painters to their subjects has obscured the reality. The truth contains more confrontations and contradictions than some people would like to admit," said Duke Beardsley, author of the eye-catching oil piece Heading West.

Contemporary works by such native American artists as John I. King, Rhett Lynch, Dan Namingha, and Jaune Quick-to-see Smith, show deep respect for their tribal ties and ancestral heritage, which is at the heart of their creativity.

For Stuart Holliday, president of Meridian International Center, "the American West is not only a place of spectacular beauty, it is also associated with the pioneering spirit linked to the expansion of America."

As the western regions of China continue to grow, there will be parallels with the expansion in the last century of America's vast western spaces and their resources, both physical and human, said Holliday at the opening ceremony.

After its Beijing premiere, which runs through April 22, the exhibition will tour Urumqi, a stronghold on the ancient Silk Road in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Xi'an where the Silk Road began in Shaanxi Province, and the coastal cities of Shanghai, Qingdao and Guangzhou where the Maritime Silk Road began, before ending in Hong Kong late this year.

"Not so many people in China, especially those in western regions, have seen original Western American art," pointed out Geoffrey Sutton, a curatorial advisor with University of Montana.

"I hope this exhibition will offer a richer and more nuanced portrait of an American West that some Chinese people may know of from Western movies," he explained.

Detailed Chinese language captions, including information about the artists and their art statements, are attached to the exhibits; at least 10,000 color-printed, free hand-outs have been prepared for the visitors, said Xu Hong with the National Art Museum of China and chief curator on the Chinese side.

(China Daily April 7, 2007)

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