Director/Curator Faceoff

Dueling perspectives energize exhibition drawn from the UAMA collection

W. James Burns is primarily a historian of the American West.

Olivia Miller is an art historian. 

The differing perspectives of their disciplines helped shape "Director's Choice/Curator's Choice," a show they co-curated at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Burns is the newish director of the museum–he started in September last year–and Miller stepped up into the job of curator in April 2014.

For this tightly focused exhibition of about 40 objects from the museum's rich permanent collection, each chose about 20 favorite pieces. Promoted as a director/curator "smackdown"–visitors can vote with their dollars for the vision of the one or the other – the show gives an inkling of what to expect from this new team as they try to right the long-troubled museum.

On Burns's side of the gallery, we find artistic evocations of the history of the West.

"A Complete Guide to Yosemite National Park," a large watercolor by Warren W. Colescott from 1993, meshes two distinct time periods. It pictures both the tourism chaos of the present-day park–skydivers dropping from the heavens, a careless hiker being (comically) eaten by a grizzly–and the 19th century expulsion of the Native American Ahwahneechee tribe from the land.

Colescott unsparingly paints the features of the forced march. Soldiers mounted on horses and armed with swords push along a bedraggled line of the defeated Indians, including elders and women with babies in arms.

Burns has also sought to include groups typically underrepresented in museums. He devoted four of his limited slots to the late, great Luis Jiménez, the sculptor and graphic artist whose work was inspired by Mexican-American pop and folk culture.

"Man on Fire," a blazing sculpture in orange and red, is a god-like nude holding his arm to the heavens, a New World version of Michelangelo's "David." But it's not rendered in lofty high-art marble: it's made of gleaming fiberglass, the stuff of low-rider cars.

Cherokee artist Kay Walking Stick also conjures up the Americas. In her "Night Magic," a handsome litho in orange, black and gray, a couple is dancing naked on rocks, in the wilderness.

A circa 1976 screen-print by the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence is timely once again, in this year of racial agony in the United States. "The 1920's ... The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots" is a simple, densely colored scene of black voters, newly arrived in the wintry North. Dressed in Roaring '20s hats and coats, they're lined up at polls where they can at last exercise their right to vote.

"I approach art through a humanities lens," Burns notes in a gallery statement. "... I am not drawn to these works by their elements or principles. Instead, I am moved by the stories they tell."

Curator Miller is interested in social issues too—he selected a wonderful 1916 litho by George Wesley Bellows, "Benediction in Georgia," that re-creates a hellish scene of black men in a southern jail, as well as a 1990 David Wojnarowicz screen-print denouncing AIDS policy.

But she's also constructed a mini-timeline of art history, making good use of the museum's invaluable European treasures.

She's hauled out of storage "The Sea Monster," a circa 1498 engraving by the great German artist Dürer that's one of the earliest pieces in the museum collection. A fanciful scene of a scaly monster carrying off a nude woman to the briny deep, the piece demonstrates Dürer's consummate skill as a draftsman.

Another monster appears in an etching by Goya, the Spanish master known for his deep probing of the human psyche. In "Quien lo creyera!" ("Who Would Have Thought It"), inked three centuries after Dürer's engraving, the brute is darker and scarier. He's hauling a woman and a man into an abyss, and Goya has used aquatint to create terrifying shadows in the pit where the pair will burn for eternity.

Miller's intent is clear. She wants to demonstrate not only how a medium persists over time, but also how different artists use it to different effect. In another pairing, she traces the evolution of watercolor. William Henry Millais, a 19th century Englishman, painted a tidy, detailed scene of a river flowing beneath leafy trees in 1866. It's a competent work but it looks positively strangulated next to Erich Heckel's gorgeous "Jungen im Wasser" ("Youth in the Water").

This bracing seascape is loose and lyrical, with big watery strokes of blue evoking the sea and sky and the curve of the earth, and quick dabs of peach conjuring up the boys playing in the waves. Painted in 1923, a lifetime after Millais's work, Heckel's "Jungen" has been liberated by the joyful explosion of modernism.

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