Last week, I posted a sampling of student responses to the exhibition that recently closed at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art, “Framing History.” All of the students in my ART 3663: History of American Art course wrote a paper about the exhibition after an in-class discussion led by our teaching assistant, Teresa Kilmer. For the next three weeks, I’ll feature longer discussions from three outstanding papers—beginning, this week, with one by Alyson Stejskal.
When one thinks of the American West, and Oklahoma in particular, images of cowboys on horseback, Native Americans making peace treaties, and fields of waving wheat immediately come to mind. Artists have colored our view of history through their works whether or not the images they portray are accurate. The Oklahoma State University Museum of Art’s “Framing History: Highlights from the Oklahoma State Capitol Senate Collection” contains artwork assembled over the last 16 years by Senator Charles Ford from 20 Oklahoma artists. It attempts to collectively capture the spirit of Oklahoma’s history and culture through portraits, history and genre paintings, and sculpture. This contemporary collection of art targets the viewer’s preconceived notions of what Oklahoma’s history and culture should be and attempts to repaint the past by quite literally framing the state’s history.
The exhibition is part of Senator Charles Ford’s Oklahoma State Capitol Senate collection, and was co-curated by Ford himself, along with Victoria Rowe Berry, director of the OSU Museum of Art. This is problematic because Ford is handpicking the history being told, from commission to curation, which muddies the historical purpose behind the exhibition. Throughout history, art has almost always had some sort of political agenda behind it, so it is safe to say that this exhibition could have a hidden political agenda as well. The exhibition’s historical painting style, which is not popular among contemporary American artists, communicates the gravity of the events being depicted and lends credibility to the artists. It tells the audience that these are important events to be remembered. It is also no coincidence that the artwork’s descriptions leave out the dates of when the pieces were created and only list the year they were donated. This tricks the viewer into thinking the pieces are actually old and historical paintings from the time period, which helps to reinforce the artists’ credibility. These historical events that Ford, along with Berry, chose to showcase promote the prestige of his state’s history.
While the exhibition does partially fulfill the goal of framing history through the paintings’ depiction of actual historical events and people and informational descriptions alongside the works, it does so in a confusing manner. One would think that the exhibition would be organized chronologically by the dates that the historical events occurred so that it could tell a story. However, “Framing History” is very loosely and inconsistently chronological and is only partly organized by painting style. As the viewer moves through the gallery, history seems to progress chronologically, but it is suddenly thrown off by pieces that do not seem to relate or belong. This can be very confusing to the viewer who is trying to make sense of the exhibition in a logical, linear way. The pieces also seem to be largely pastoral and from long ago, and then they abruptly shift to technological images of war and end abruptly with no real optimistic resolution or conclusion about Oklahoma’s history.
The exhibition also attempted to interact with viewers by having miniature sketch paintings showing the artists’ process off to the side of the larger works on turn cards. This is an interesting, fun way of trying to get people to interact with the art, however, almost everyone I observed in the gallery did not know that they were allowed to touch them because there was no sign prompting them to do so.
One argument made in [the 1991 Smithsonian exhibition, “The West as America,” which presented nineteenth-century landscape paintings of the American West in the context of commentary about American expansionism] stated that the paintings in the gallery “should not be seen as records of time and place.” The curators went on to say that, “history is unconsciously edited by those who make it” and is almost guaranteed to have some personal bias or a hidden agenda. They used the example of a nineteenth century patron who would have commissioned a painting to show the West as a “manageable social environment” and a promising place to live.
One example of this from “Framing History” is Dennis Parker’s Surrender of General Stand Watie. The painting depicts Cherokee Stand Watie, who was one of two Native Americans to attain the rank of brigadier general in the American Civil War, as he surrenders. The painting portrays Watie as being very defeated and submissive to the white man and shows a white man standing on a porch in the background with authoritative crossed arms. It seems to cast Watie in a negative light. What the painting leaves out is the context of why Watie was involved in the Civil War in the first place. The main reason Watie and the Native Americans got involved in fighting on the Confederate side was not because they supported slavery; it was because they were fearful of the Federal Government and their threat of making their part of Indian Territory into a state (what is now Oklahoma), which would take away their rights to their own land. Instead, this piece seems to paint Watie as a Confederate general fighting for the white man’s morally corrupt cause and fails to speak on behalf of the Native Americans and their conflicting views with the American settlers.
Inevitably many of the pieces in “Framing History” frame history in a one-sided, over generalized way. It would be way too depressing and shameful to show certain events, especially ones of violently encroaching on the Native Americans’ land and destroying their way of life, even though they played an important role in the shaping of Oklahoma’s history and culture. History oftentimes is not very pretty or flattering and we would rather forget about our wrongdoings, which is human nature. Surrender of General Stand Watie shows us interacting with Native Americans, but does not delve into the deeper meaning and history surrounding the painting such as the Native Americans’ opposition to our invasion of their homeland and way of life.
Overall, “Framing History” confirms the preconceived notions many people have of Oklahoma’s image. It expands on some of Oklahoma’s select historical events and important figures and gives the viewer some historical context and general information, but overall it caters to Charles Ford’s vision of Oklahoma. It is a very safe, cliché approach to Oklahoma’s history, but understandably so. The paintings are meant to glorify Oklahoma’s history and culture, and the politicians in charge, not necessarily to accurately depict it, even though historical accuracy is definitely implied by the exhibition’s title, painting style, and subject matter.
This exhibition also does not do Oklahoma artists justice. It shows a very limited view of art in Oklahoma and mostly focuses on one painting style even though the exhibition contains work from 20 artists. It would have been nice to see a myriad of eclectic artistic styles come together to tell the story of Oklahoma’s history. The exhibition successfully frames Oklahoma’s history, but whether or not it does so in a completely accurate, unbiased way is another matter.
Editor’s Note: this essay has been edited slightly for length and to correct typographical errors, but the substance of Alyson’s content has not been altered.