Two weeks ago, 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. This is the second week of three in which I feature longer discussions from three outstanding papers—this week, one by Anthony Corraro.
What does it mean to frame an object? Is it a declaration of an object worthy of observation? Or one worthy of pride? To put an object on display invites the world to not only recognize it but look upon it with scrutiny. In the exhibition Framing History: Highlights from the Oklahoma State Capitol Senate Collection, this idea is put into effect with not only the collection of works but with the history of Oklahoma as a whole. While the exhibition does not provide a linear narrative of each major historical event within Oklahoma, it does highlight some of the most influential and identifiable events that are considered characteristic of the state’s past. The timeline serves as an historical outline orchestrated by the exhibition itself, while the subject of each piece supplements the structure.
Oklahoma is represented as a state with a rich history that was heavily involved with the expansion of the West, punctuated by relations with Native Americans and deeply rooted in sentimentality for exploring a new frontier. There is a clear theme of state pride within the exhibition, as each piece involved is an aesthetically pleasing testament to the true history of Oklahoma. And yet, as the collection is meant to frame the state as beautifully as the pseudo-antique frames do their respective artwork, it beckons thoughts of what may have been cropped out. Framing History attempts to portray the history of Oklahoma in a specific manner; this may prove to be detrimental to the genuinely curious as the proudly displayed artwork seems to suggest a more idealized perspective of the state.
This exhibition was organized and co-curated by former Oklahoma Senator Charles R. Ford and Victoria Rowe Berry and supported by the Oklahoma State Senate Historical Preservation Fund. It is a collection of artwork from twenty Oklahoman artists during a period of over 16 years. The goal of the exhibition is to frame the history of Oklahoma through “capturing the spirit” and “honoring the tradition,” which it does with the use of a variety of different pieces, from genre painting to portraiture, landscapes to historical scenes. The paintings are executed skillfully, the styles of them as diverse as their subjects. The gallery is organized in a manner that provides an initial summary of certain periods, beginning with pastoral scenes and ending with more recent events.
In addition, throughout the gallery are framed quotes, themselves pertaining to the idea of framing. Senator Charles Ford takes this theme to heart as each frame was handpicked to be in the exhibition, his belief in the frame as part of the artwork quite evident. The frames for each piece largely assimilate to such their individual aesthetic in an effort to relate them to the period and subject that they depict. According to Bob Burke, this need for the ideal frame even resulted in Ford commissioning paintings according to the dimensions and styles of the frame. This raises the question of the authenticity of some of the artwork being put on display; even further, it highlights the curators’ influence on the exhibition and the portrayal of Oklahoma’s history as a whole. With such an intense focus on the idea of framing, the sense of the artwork’s importance almost feels fabricated, put on display for display’s sake alone. The paintings feel costumed, the frames not serving any particular purpose beyond securing the identity that the painting is already successfully portraying. The focus on the concept of framing brings this issue to mind, and as one observes the myriad works in the gallery, the show can feel fairly disjointed. However, despite each work strongly exhibiting its own particular identity, they do relate to an overall identity of Oklahoma as a whole. The attempt to “frame” the history of the Sooner State through the use of such a diverse collection feels awkward initially, but each piece nonetheless seems to add to the theme collectively.
But as this identity of Oklahoma’s past is proudly on display, it is essential to observe the manner in which it is displayed. With a theme focused on the idea of presentation, it is difficult to avoid the question of how accurately this history is presented. As one examines the work on display, it does not feel like a factual and detailed description of the past but rather a celebration of the triumphs within it. In fact, the exhibition as a whole serves as a testament to the diversity and charm of Oklahoma. Much of the work displayed echoes those ideals with almost each piece holding a sense of sentimentality and dignity. Within the traditionally rendered paintings there is an absence of conflict, each one outlining a calm moment that asks for respect, not inquiry.
One of the major influences of Oklahoma’s history as an American territory is that of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led directly to the deportation of the “Five Civilized Tribes” in what is known as the Trail of Tears. Save for the bronzes by Enoch Kelly Haney and Willard Stone, this major event feels glossed over. There are some pieces, such as the painting Ceremonial Transfer of the Louisiana Purchase in New Orleans by Mike Wimmer, that allude to events that relate to the Trail of Tears, but the actual event and aftermath seems forsaken and leaves little to meditate upon.
A similar history painting by the same artist, the Osage Treaty of 1825 depicts the signing of the treaty that would relocate the Osage to Kansas in order to allow for the Cherokees and Creeks to be moved to Oklahoma. One interesting note here is that it is Indian Commissioner William Clark who holds the quill as he hands it to Osage Principal Chief Clairmont, a somewhat direct analogy to the power that the American Government held over the native tribes. Compared with the former painting by Wimmer where French and American officials were securing the transfer of land in good spirits, there is a somberness to The Osage Treaty of 1825, where a Native American figure in the left foreground stares directly at the viewer as if to cause one to consider the ethics of the event.
And yet, much of the Native American representation within the show still holds a distinctly European view; despite attempts to portray the culture and history of the tribes on their own merit, there are consistent ties to European influence throughout. There is a focus on the relation between the tribes and the ever-expanding American influence, which is of great importance, but there is a lack of attention paid to the Native Americans as a series of independent nations. Instead, there are many paintings that display the contact with the tribes from the point of view of the frontiersmen. Though they are seen in what many could consider a positive light, there is still a deficit of authenticity to it, especially when juxtaposed alongside the titular American government officials. Of the work in the show, there are no styles that depart from the European tradition; the history paintings inspired in the grand manner aesthetic to the landscape and genre paintings which dominated American arts during the 19th century. The experience of history feels limited to the European perspective, a framing that is perhaps intentional. Considering the origins of Oklahoma as a United States territory, it seems unfitting that such little attention is paid to the realistic point of view of the original inhabitants.
One would doubt that those familiar with Oklahoma’s history in its entirety would be satisfied with the exhibition, and yet it still serves its purpose for many others. Framing History does not demand analysis and understanding. Those who do subject the show to such querying will find that the frame it attempts to build feels incomplete; or perhaps, much like how each frame in the exhibition is meant to echo the subject of the piece, this one matches a still limited understanding of the chronicle of Oklahoma, an understanding that feels heavily rooted within a 19th century American artistic tradition. To truly “capture the spirit” and “honor the tradition” of Oklahoma, one ought to not only consider the influence of American politics and expansionism to “the wild frontier,” but also how these events have affected both of the major populations. One must expand the view of a simplified Native American culture to truly examine it as a comprehensive element within the past, not one that is still considered separate-but-equal.
Editor’s Note: this essay has been edited slightly for length, but the substance of Anthony’s content has not been altered.