No doubt the current Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit in Iowa City contains some blockbusters. At the opening, crowds pressed around such paintings as Albert Bierstadt's In the Sierra Nevadas, marveling at the sense of depth and clarity of the water and the reflected mountains.

Thankfully, the exhibit does not rest on these visions of beauty; this is a popular show that doesn't hide its complexity and contradictions, and has as much to say about our contemporary relationship to the myth and reality of our Western lands as it does about the 1820s through 1930s.

The exhibit's 70 paintings and sculptures represent three general phases in Western American art. Tracing the arc from early fascination to expressions of Manifest Destiny, arriving at last at nostalgic romanticism, the gallery text doesn't shy from the fact that resource extraction was common to all. In capturing the features, dress, and habits of indigenous people, or in fixing an image of grandiose landscapes, many of the show's artists blended closely observed fact with fictions and beliefs current in the political and commercial markets of their time.

Charles Bird King's portrait of five Pawnee chiefs, commissioned by the War Department, exemplifies the merging of anthropological detail and Enlightenment beliefs. Robed in hides, with shoulders bared, the chiefs stand in the posture of Roman statesmen. This identification of a contemporary people with a noble, but long dead, empire is repeated in several large bronze medallions, including the "Chief Joseph" medal, the only likeness of the man, revered in his defeat, taken from life.

In the context of such finely achieved yet stylized portraits, Joseph Henry Sharp's The Voice of the Great Spirit and paintings from George Catlin's Indian Gallery take on additional meaning. The Sharp painting is an act of mourning interrupted; the figure in the foreground actively resists the artist's eye, pulling a blanket over her face. In the background, a body rests on a bier. The severed heads and tails of two horses point direction.

Catlin's 1832 portrait The Cheyenne suggests modern meaning in its unfinished quality. In his travels, Catlin painted rapidly, capturing a face in detail and often sketching out the body and background for completion later. Perhaps Catlin recognized that he could not improve upon the unfinished Cheyenne: The body seems to fade, as if the man is vanishing, or partly insubstantial. The dark handprint over the mouth suggests speech restrained. It is difficult to view these paintings without imposing interpretations based on hindsight. For his part, Catlin recognized the threat posed to Native Americans by disease, and was the first to suggest setting aside lands as a living preserve.

Another artist, Thomas Moran, was more successful in his efforts to preserve land: His romantic paintings of Yellowstone helped influence Congress to create that first National Park. Tellingly, Moran's paintings minimize human presence. Even as he painted scenes near settled areas, he depicted foreboding landscapes cast in impressionistic atmospheric effects.

Moran's landscapes contrast with those of the later Taos school. George Guerney, a deputy curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, related the beginnings of the Taos school in a lecture at the opening: Many of the artists began their careers as commercial illustrators who came to Taos "to escape." To support their work, they formed a commercial partnership with the Santa Fe railroad, and paintings were exhibited in ticket offices and hotels on the rail line.

The Taos school paintings have a gorgeous graphic quality, bold in color and shape. Henry's Homeward Bound (1933-34), with its repeated pattern of dried sunflower stalks against an evening sky, reflects the credo of capturing a single particular moment. The painting was also made possible by particular circumstances of history - the artist was part of the Public Works Arts Project under the New Deal.

Three paintings by Albert Bierstadt, whose grandiose Sierra Nevadas was painted in 1868 in Rome as a composite of actual landscapes, encapsulated the range of the exhibit's landscapes. Bierstadt displayed this large painting on a stage, for audiences to regard as we might a movie - it depicted American scenery "as it ought to be" for viewers of the time.

Bierstadt's smaller works of the Alaskan Coast Range and of early light on the Sierra peaks are more mysterious and foreboding, and equally lovely. Dark masses suggest the unknown quality of the land - I felt an intimacy, an immediacy of an emotional response shared with the artist that is lacking elsewhere.

One of the exhibit's pleasures is recognition. I heard several gallery goers remark with satisfaction, "I've been there." For many, the West and its complicated myths are central to the American psyche. Though we may never have lived there, we feel as if the West somehow is ours. That feeling is a timely one; the changing guard at the Department of the Interior marks another step in our relationship to the American West. A step that, like this exhibit, deserves our open eyes.

Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum runs through March 18 at The University of Iowa Museum of Art in Iowa City.

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