A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Feb 1, 2012
Hear the terms “out west” or “road trip” and your mind floods with visions. Before you even get in the car, the experience you think you ought to have and the places you're certain you'll encounter are laid out for you. Unfortunately, many of those expectations are overblown, cliché or altogether false.
The latest exhibition at the James Watrous Gallery takes a fresh look at the American west. Smartly, in Inferior Mirages & Incidental Detours: Chele Isaac & BA Harrington, on display through February 26, the artists didn’t attempt to explore this part of the country based on prior accounts or in a cultural vacuum; rather, they were aware of the power of nostalgia, romanticism and myth.
The video and sculpture presented in the show represent an ongoing collaboration between Isaac and Harrington, specifically from a road trip from Madison to San Diego they embarked on last January. They drove along historic routes and stopped to explore points of historical interest, truck stops, alternative communities and more. “The project is guided by an inquiry into how nostalgia influences our understanding of what it is like to be an American in the 21st century,” the artists write in a statement.
A main component of the exhibition is a row of four small televisions. A progression of images plays out on the screens: a person on a four-wheeler careening across the desert, American flags flapping in the sky, a filthy old house, a building with “Jesus Lives” painted on the outside, a beautiful sunrise, a train. Some are familiar—iconic, even—while others show darker sides of the west. As the artists consider each element, there’s a sense of reclaiming them from the stronghold of myth.
The use of televisions and screens continues in the exhibition, such as three TVs of different sizes covered in orange and white checked fabric and stacked on a wooden wagon. Nearby, three long, coffin-like boxes are piled up; viewers can peek inside to see a scene of waves lapping up to an old boat on a beach.
In a separate section of the gallery, a small wooden altar reveals a scene of cactuses, a sunny sky and a person walking. And a small cabinet has four panels showing a person looking through binoculars.
The final room of the show has two benches on which visitors can sit and watch a video projection on a wall. The scene is a rocky landscape, and a woman in a pink coat and white hat walks through it. She’s shown from different angles, sometimes in multiple—she’s on a journey and considering the land from various perspectives.
Isaac and Harrington’s open-minded approach to a place so mired in preconceived notions offers a fresh interpretation of the American west—and by extension allows viewers to be surprised, challenged, even proven wrong in their assumptions. Wouldn’t you wish such an opportunity for any place?
Inferior Mirages & Incidental Detours: Chele Isaac & BA Harrington runs through February 26 at the James Watrous Gallery. For more information, visit wisconsinacademy.org.
Photo courtesy of the James Watrous Gallery.