Sunday, March 11, 2018

What kind of horse gets depicted in public art -- and who decides?

Donal O'Toole wrote a fine piece for Studio Wyoming Review last week. It critiqued the public art on the University of Wyoming campus and found it wanting. Too many bucking broncos. I agree. Enough with the bucking broncos. Cowboys riding horses out of a rodeo chute is just one small aspect of Wyoming life (for a different look at rodeo, check out RoseMarie London's photographs). Almost every community has a rodeo. Fine. What other aspects of the rodeo can be depicted in public art? Rodeo has a history but I see few representations of that. What about the Hispanic roots of rodeo? Where are our vaquero statues? What about Native Americans on horseback? UW has one sculpture of Chief Washakie. What is that tradition? Hispanics and Native Americans have long histories with the horse.

The horse itself has a long history in Wyoming. I was amazed to learn that an ancient genus of horse, now labeled Haringtonhippus francisci, roamed Wyoming for thousands of years, until about 17,000 years ago. Then it disappeared from the fossil records. DNA extracted from bones at Wyoming's Natural Trap Cave have shown that this horse is a separate genus from Equus, the one that includes the horses depicted in UW sculptures. The line that includes the North American horse, also called the New World Stilt-legged horse, apparently diverged from Equus 4-6 million years ago, according to a 2017 article in Science Daily.  Here is an artist's rendering from

This illustration depicts a family of stilt-legged horses (Haringtonhippus francisci) in Yukon, Canada, during the last ice age. Credit: Jorge Blanco.

As interesting as it would be to see these horses in the wild, it would still be interesting to see artistic renderings of this Ice Age creature on the UW campus. Our history as a geographic place predates the beginnings of cowboys and rodeos. Millions of years of history is explored in science courses at UW. Let's put some examples on display for all to see. There is a funky T-Rex in front of the UW Geology Building. That's so predictable, isn't it? But why not represent all of the flora and fauna that now exists as dirt and shards and fossils (and coal, oil, and gas) underneath our feet? In this era of Climate Change Deniers, wouldn't it be educational to see what sort of life forms led to the eons-long formation of coal deposits which we have burned for fuel which loaded up the atmosphere with CO2 and caused global warming which will melt the polar ice which will then cause the oceans to reclaim some of its ancient territory which includes Wyoming?

Perhaps that is too educational. Chris Drury's "Carbon Sink" at UW tried to represent this and look what happened to that. You have to believe in the values of education to actually make this work. Our current crop of Know Nothing Republicans in the legislature despise higher education because it offers more expansive views of the world than their narrow minds can cope with. These same people fear non-representational art for its ability to challenge assumptions about time and space and imagination.

A different look at a horse: Deborah Butterfield's "Billings" was part of the "Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational" at UW. From the UW Art Museum blog.

One of my favorite public art installation at UW was the multi-year "Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational" that began in 2008. UW Art Museum Susan Moldenhauer and staff decided to take art outside during the museum's interior renovation. UW hosted 17 works by 16 artists of international renown. Some were on the UW campus, others scattered around Laramie. I fondly recall walking the campus on a warm summer day to view the artwork and then tooling around town to see the rest. One of my favorites was Patrick Dougherty's "Shortcut," an assemblage of Wyoming sticks and branches that, over the course of several years, was allowed to change with the elements. Students helped the artist, which gave them some real-world experience in alternative sculpture. Then the wind and the rain and the snow took over.

We all learned a valuable lesson about power in Wyoming when energy interests persuaded UW leaders to dismantle and remove "Carbon Sink" on one dark and stormy night. Public arty is OK, they seemed to say, as long as it doesn't interfere with the interests of international conglomerates that reap a bountiful harvest from Wyoming. That may be one of the reasons that public art at UW has become so predictable in the Trump era.

The artists continue to make relevant art and the combine, as Chief Broom might say in an inner dialogue, keeps churning along.

My latest art review appeared Friday in Wyofile's Studio Wyoming Review. Read "Worth a thousand words: the work of Laramie photographers."

Keep reading -- and keep making art.

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