Why You Should Go “Way Out West” with Ackland Art Museum

I got a preview of Ackland Art Museum’s latest exhibition, which explores artistic responses to the American West.

I think it’s important to realize how special our environment is, and the lens through which we view it. How do we play into this? I think that’s a great thrust throughout the show: how people are incorporated into the landscape, and how it’s beautiful, and worth saving.

Dana Cowen, Ackland Art Museum Curator on
Way Out West: Celebrating the Gift of the Hugh A. McAllister Jr. Collection

If you want to get a dose of the beauty and culture of the American West without the five hour flight from RDU, stop by Ackland Art Museum’s latest exhibition, Way Out West: Celebrating the Gift of the Hugh A. McAllister Jr. Collection.

The red rock and broad horizons of the American West have long inspired the Eastern imagination. Those landscapes certainly had a hold on Hugh A. McAllister Jr., the famous cardiologist and UNC alum who, in his recent passing, donated over twenty artworks portraying the American West to Ackland Art Museum. Way Out West is a celebration of the McAllister gift, and marks curator Dana Cowen’s first exhibition for Ackland Art Museum.

Incorporating donations from the McAllister collection and works from Ackland’s holdings, Way Out West is a tribute to inspiring Western landscapes- and a critique of artistic perspectives. The exhibition asks the audience to consider just who’s looking at the landscape. What do they see, and why do they see it that way?

With works from the late nineteenth century onwards, Way Out West is a gathering of a wide variety of media and a wide variety perspectives. There’s no arguing with the individual and collective beauty of the paintings, photography, sculpture, and other media, and a viewer could take that beauty at face value. But Way Out West asks more.

Brett Weston, American, 1911-1993
Garapata Beach, California, 1954, printed in 1978
10 9/16 x 13 1/4 in.
Ackland Fund, 80.53.3
Courtesy of Ackland Art Museum

With a keen eye for cultural interaction and its impact on the environment, curator Dana Cowen creates a reckoning with the inspiration and violence inherent in artistic representation of the American West.

Nineteenth century painters and photographers captured the romance of the West’s sweeping vistas. Painters Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran and photographers Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan portrayed the West with an eye for luminosity and European aesthetics.

However, these artists did not acknowledge the Native Americans that inhabited the West, the violence being perpetrated against them at that time, or the industry that was rapidly transforming the land. These paintings and photographs portray a pristine landscape ripe for the picking by white settlers. Way Out West acknowledges the beauty of these artworks while asking the audience to consider their problematic nature.

An array of work from Native American artists featured in Way Out West ranges from the early twentieth century to present day. Highlighted artists include Awa Tsireh, Romando Vigil, and Larry McNeil. Alongside depictions of Navajo and Pueblo culture, much of the featured art critiques how non-native artists portray Native Americans. These critiques land with particular power when juxtaposed with early twentieth art from white artists that romanticized and infantilized Native Americans.

Way Out West also pulls from Ackland’s vast photography collection, showing work by Edward Weston and Peter Goin, among others, that explores the transformation of the American West over the course of the twentieth century.

In an examination of the effects of industry and tourism on the environment, Way Out West concludes with a strong message of appreciation for the beauty of the American West, and the imperative to protect it.

Ackland Art Museum will host several events for Way Out West, including guided tours, 2nd Friday ArtWalk events, and opportunities to create artwork inspired by the exhibition.

Further details and event listings here.

Header Image:

Thomas Moran, American, born in England, 1837-1926, Virgin River, Utah, 1908, oil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches The Hugh A. McAllister, Jr., M.D. Collection, 2019.15.22 , Courtesy of Ackland Art Museum

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