Stephanie Syjuco’s latest project questions how our concept of the American West was created, and how it’s remembered today. The artist’s site-specific, multimedia installation Double Vision at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, on view through December 31, is based on pieces by 19th-century Western artists like Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington, and others from the museum’s collection. By placing these images under a theoretical microscope, Syjuco highlights the fabricated nature of the mythic West, and points to the role that museums play in perpetuating narratives about its people, places, and events.
“The museum’s founding collection is around 400 paintings by Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington, and we were previously known as the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art,” exhibition curator Kristen Gaylord told Hyperallergic on a recent tour. “As someone who is Western — Syjuco is based in California — and American — she’s a naturalized citizen who was born in the Philippines — she was interested in looking at how that narrative did or didn’t apply to herself and others.”
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With its 50-foot-wide, 15-foot-tall wall murals and floor-to-ceiling curtains, the installation suggests a sort of immersive, theatrical set. Syjuco’s strange stage is built on layers and shifts in media. Her murals are digital reproductions of chromolithograph prints that were made after Bierstadt’s landscape paintings from the late 1860s. Both show sweeping views of the Rocky Mountains, an iconic embodiment of the West’s rugged, vast terrain. But the images’ magnificent views are skewed by Syjuco’s digital interventions, where she mirrors, recolors, and blurs elements of Bierstadt’s original works. She has also chosen to reproduce the prints’ color checking and registration marks, reminding us once again of the images’ artifice.
Aluminum prints of white male hands float above one of the murals. The artist photographed them with her iPhone on a site visit while viewing paintings and sculptures in the Carter’s collection. Heroic and active, the hands shoot guns, pull horse reins, and cast votes in ballot boxes. Their activity ranges from an explicitly violent control to one that’s more structural. “[The hands] became a perfect metaphor for the handling, or manhandling, of the West,” Gaylord said, “and the ways in which white masculine power was shaping the story of the West, what that meant, and who that story was shaped for.”
Large-scale photos of horse and rider sculptures by Remington hang on the opposite wall. Though they are shot in high detail, carefully lit, and positioned in front of a backdrop, the pictures do not simply document the works they contain. Elements that are usually kept behind the scenes like rulers, color charts, and even human hands appear with the photos, and their dark backgrounds make the objects difficult to view. Again, Syjuco is alerting us to the artifice behind artworks, this time implicating the museum as an arbiter of their presentation, meaning, and value. “There’s an analogy between the hands shaping the story of the West, and the museum’s hands shaping the story of these artworks,” Gaylord noted.
Syjuco’s installation is a pertinent one in Fort Worth, where the cattle trade, rodeo, and other elements of traditional Western life have long been cornerstones of the local economy and culture. With this exhibition, the museum is reevaluating its own history and purpose. “These works are so core to the museum’s identity,” Gaylord explained. “A large subset of our visitors adore this material, and other visitors don’t think this material represents them or their experience. I want to make sure that as a museum we are continuing to evolve with the scholarship and with new understandings of American history.”