PROVO — Big. Bold. Sunbaked splendor as far as the eye can see.
The unique landscape of the American Southwest offers up a different kind of beauty: sweeping vistas, dramatic landforms and striking colors. It is not surprising that in the early part of the 20th century it attracted talented artists from not only the eastern United States but also Europe, who came to capture it in paint.
But, says Paul Anderson, curator of Southwest American Art at BYU's Museum of Art, once they got here, many of them also found this very different landscape to be intimidating. "It was nothing like the gentler green landscape and softer sunlight that their previous education and experience in France or New York or Boston had prepared them for."
Many felt like Hungarian-born, New York-trained artist Emil Bittram, who noted: "Whenever I tried to paint what was before me, I was frustrated by the grandeur of the scenery and the limitless space. Above all there was that strange, almost mystic, quality of light."
As a "Wide-Open Spaces: Capturing the Grandeur of the American Southwest" exhibition at the museum shows, however, these early 20th-century artists learned to adapt.
The show features 80 paintings, both from the Museum of Art's permanent collection, and from the Diane and Sam Stewart Art Collection, currently on loan to the museum.
The exhibition inaugurates a new gallery at the museum, which has been remodeled to create a space that will be devoted to Southwestern art for at least the next five years, Anderson said. "Wide-Open Spaces" will run through March of 2012, and will be followed by a show focused on the depiction of human figures by Southwest artists.
There has been a resurgence of interest in Southwest art in the past few years, Anderson said. "For a long time, it tended to be overlooked, as so many collectors and critics were fascinated with modernism. But in the past 20 to 30 years, Southwest art has become recognized as an important part of our great American art heritage. As those blinders have come off, it has become more appreciated and valued."
More and more people have found, he said, "that it still speaks to people in the way it did in the days when it was considered exotic art. There's still a certain romance and nostalgia to it."
Of course, he added, "it has always been special to us, because it's our part of the world, our homeland."
"Wide-Open Spaces" not only shows off some spectacular examples of the art, but the exhibition is also designed to help viewers understand the different ways different artists responded to the challenge of capturing this varied landscape. In general, they focus on six different techniques, Anderson says.
First, there's "The Endless Horizon." Many artists "broke the rules of traditional landscape painting to show the vastness and overwhelming scale of the Western landscape," Anderson said. "While traditional landscapes often include trees on both sides of the picture to contain the image and give a sense of completeness, Western landscapes generally dispense with these framing elements and emphasize unbroken horizontal lines to give a sense of incompleteness, implying that the sweeping Western landscape is too large to fit on the canvas."
You see this in works by Mable Frazer, for example, and some of Maynard Dixon's work, and others.
Next, there are the "Towering Mountains." Artists such as B.F. Larsen and Dixon are among those who "tried hard to make big look big," Anderson said; "They crowded the canvas and cropped the view; they showed landforms in shadow, and a single figure riding by, dwarfed by the mountains."
Western artists also learned to deal with "Dazzling Light." There's Phillip Henry Barkdull's "Great White Throne," for example, done in brilliant reds and oranges. There's Mahonri Young "playing with the light from dramatic southern storms." There are spectacular sunsets. Quite often, Anderson said, "the light itself is the main subject."
Another approach used by the artists was that of "Simplifying Forms." Some artists exaggerated land forms, made them more geometric, streamlined shapes. You see that in Harold Buck Weaver's cloud patterns and Conrad Buff's "Canyon Walls," for example.
Other artists chose to portray the "Intimate Landscape." The exhibition is not "all huge mountains and wide spaces," Anderson says. "Sometimes artists focused on the details; one flower, one stream bed, one 'White Primrose' by Georgia O'Keeffe."
Edwin Evans was a Utah artist who went on an art mission to France. "He was just back when he painted "Boulders by a Water Pool," and you see some French Impressionism," Anderson said.
Another response to the landscape was to include "People on the Land." Some artists wanted to say something relating to the Southwest as a place to live, Anderson said, and they did it with everyone from cowboys to Indians to Depression-era workers and Dixon's "Forgotten Man," to an intrepid woman delivering mail in a fierce nighttime snowstorm.
It's a very exciting exhibition with many paintings that have not been shown at MOA before, Anderson says. "The Stewarts have a wonderful eye for quality and have collected some major works over the past 10 years. The show is about half-and-half from their collection and ours."
"These are pictures that people really like, that they immediately understand on one level. Yet, the more you look, the deeper you go, the more there is to discover."
In connection with "Wide-Open Spaces," Western artist Gary Ernest Smith will be the keynote speaker at a special colloquium on Friday, 1:30-4 p.m., in the museum auditorium. Smith will discuss his particular interest in the Southwest, qualities he finds significant and why it is valuable to make these connections. Papers by students and faculty will also be presented. The public is invited; admission is free.
Next door to the Southwest Gallery is the Electronic Media gallery, featuring "Healing 1" by Brian Knep. This interactive video installation looks like a huge electronic carpet. As you walk across it, the pattern pulls away, creating a "wound," which heals itself after you leave, but never in quite the same way. Knep lives in Boston, and in 2005 became the first artist-in-residence at Harvard Medical School. "Healing 1" also runs through March 2012.
If you go:
What: "Wide-Open Spaces: Capturing the Grandeur of the American Southwest"
Where: Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo
When: Through March 2012; Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturdays, noon-5 p.m.
How much: free
Also: Colloquium with Gary Ernest Smith, Oct. 29, 1:30 p.m.