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“Many Wests, Many Souths”


Richard Speer

Two months ago, on the day before Thanksgiving, I drove from Portland to the University of Oregon in Eugene to see “Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea” at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.  It’s a traveling show, an earlier iteration of which Matthew Kangas reviewed last Spring in Visual Art Source.  It will next appear at Utah Museum of Fine Arts before winding up at The Smithsonian, which conceived and sponsored it. The show grew out of extended early Covid-era brainstorming by five curators, among them JSMA’s savvy and spirited curator of Northwest art, Danielle Knapp. I won’t retread Kangas’ insightful analysis, but will mention that the exhibition re-examines the phenomenon of the American West from alternative viewpoints — Native, Latino, Black, Queer, and Asian-American — as an antidote to the Eurocentric heteronormative male perspective we’ve been fed in the past by Hollywood films and American history textbooks.


(left) Hung Liu, born Changchun, Mandarin Ducks, 2005, oil on canvas, 80 x 80".

Boise Art Museum Permanent Collection, Gift of Anita Kay Hardy in Loving Memory of Her Parents, Earl M. and LaVane M. Hardy

(Center) David Spellerberg, “Back in the Saddle Again,” 1988, bronze. Courtesy of the Gene Autry Museum of the American West

()Right)Rick Bartow, “Buck,” 2015. acrylic on canvas, 72 x 72”. Gift of the Estate of Rick Bartow and Froelick Gallery, Portland

As Knapp walked me through the galleries, she noted that each of the groups represented in the show brought to the West subcultures within subcultures, each with their own philosophical, literary, religious, musical, and culinary traditions. Out on the open range, turns out, it wasn’t just ribeyes, baked beans, and Texas toast; it was jambalaya, collard greens, sauerkraut, chow mein, and potlatch. How refreshing, this conception of the West as smorgasbord rather than prix fixe! You’d never intuit that from Gene Autry ballads, John Wayne movies, or Louis L’Amour novels, all of which portray a vast region as more monolith than mélange. That sort of essentializing and editing-out of plurality is very much still in play, as false hegemonic narratives continue to undermine our faceted multicultural reality. Republicans calculatedly portray the postmodern moment as a battle royal between themselves in white cowboy hats versus everyone else in black. Ergo their fixation on culture-war flashpoints such as abortion, wokeness, critical race theory, gay marriage, trans athletes, and the shattering implications of unsexy M&M characters — any issue that might cleave a populace in two, any tactic that enables them to divide and conquer, any path toward obstruction rather than governance.


FOX News attacked M&M's female candy ads ...

and the company responded by cancelling the campaign

The day after seeing the exhibition, I drove north to Salem to celebrate Thanksgiving with the family of my late partner, painter Dorothy Goode. Spending the holiday with them felt like the antithesis of the divisiveness and xenophobia so prevalent in our politics, thanks in large part to an infusion of new friends and energy around our festivities. Joining us for the first time for food and fellowship was the extended family of my nephew D.J. Brown’s girlfriend, Lili Alvarez, whose heritage is Mexican and Salvadoran. Breaking bread together, sharing laughter and memories of our lives across different cultures, it really did feel like the melting pot so many of our civics teachers told us this nation, at its best, can be. In the face of seemingly intractable polarization, I desperately want to believe we can still rise to that promise.

A week later I packed a suitcase and boarded a plane from Portland to Orlando, Florida, to spend the rest of the holidays with my parents and brother. As a native Floridian who has been a Portlander since 2000, I can tell you that, with the possible exception of Texas, Florida is the place Portlanders most love to hate, even or especially if they’ve never visited the state. It’s the domain, after all, of Ron DeSantis, Rick Scott, Marco Rubio, Matt Gaetz, and the petulant majordomo of Mar-a-Lago.

Portlanders like to take it a step further, broadly painting not only Florida and Texas but the entire American South as a stunted bastion of backward evangelicals, rednecks, hillbillies, and all manner of inbred, tobacco-chewing, Confederate flag-waving, pickup-driving, deer-hunting dimwits weaned on country ham and grits and gripped by an insatiable thirst for patriarchal theocracy. But I submit that the Florida you see in its supermarkets and barber shops is different from the Florida you see on cable news. It’s appreciably diverse (far more so than Oregon), with Caucasians barely holding onto a 51 percent majority, Latinos/Hispanics making up more than a quarter of the population, Blacks at 15 percent, and Native and Asian Americans rounding out the tally. Lots of queer folks here, too, holding hands, pushing baby carriages, no big deal. I went to a jazz club in Orlando shortly after I arrived, and the crowd was like a “United Colors of Benetton” ad.

Two days after Christmas I took a friend visiting from Oregon on a day trip to the town of Mount Dora, which in many ways embodies Old Florida living: historic hotels by the lake, a quaint downtown, and sleepy residential streets lined with laurel oaks dripping with Spanish moss. When we parked my car by Donnelly Park and set off on foot to take in the sights, the first thing we saw was a gun and ammo shop right across the street called Lake County Arms, with American flags in the window and a big sign in Army-stencil font with splatters through the letters, like bullet holes. I’ve since learned that the shop specializes in Class 3 fully automatic weapons such as machine guns, military surplus firearms, and tactical rifles. It’s right next door to a pastry shop. Wow, I thought, how rich. Welcome to Main Street U.S.A. Wonder how many people are packing heat? I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a photo of the storefront to post later to social media and get a few guffaws out of my friends back in the Portland art scene.


Mount Dora, Florida shopping district.

Courtesy, Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce

My friend and I found a Cuban restaurant for lunch, passing up not one but two sushi joints and a seemingly endless progression of ethnic eateries: Italian, German, Lebanese, Caribbean, Mexican, and Indian, not to mention a barbecue and soul food place, an English pub, and an upscale fusion bistro that would fit right in in L.A. or Seattle. Afterwards we hit some shops, filing past people of many hues, ages, and accents. They were in a good mood. They were chattering. They were buying stuff.


Richard Speer, “Pakepani,” 2018, photograph

We passed a Montessori school, a waxing boutique, a spa offering ayurvedic massages, a community center named after Martin Luther King, Jr., and believe it or not, a museum devoted to modernist art and design. This really didn’t feel like a Second Amendment convention after all, or some holy-roller white-power coven from the Land that Time Forgot. I began to reconsider posting the picture of the gun shop. I remembered a column I wrote in 2018 entitled “What I Didn’t Take Pictures of in Nepal” about selectivity in photography: what and whom we train our lenses on, and why. On a trek through the Himalayas, I’d made a decision not to photograph certain things — rivers choked with sewage, horrendous mounds of garbage strewn by villagers down rocky slopes because there was no infrastructure to dispose of it — because I hadn’t wanted to make my host country an object of ridicule and disgust among folks back home who just wouldn’t understand the complexities that created these conditions. A photograph essentializes. It may be worth a thousand words, but it seldom tells the whole story.

So why, now, in this friendly, incongruously cosmopolitan town in central Florida, was I going to single out one business from a hundred and hold it up to mockery by people scrolling Instagram 3,000 miles away? Bill Maher-style sarcasm never sat well with me. A sneer is not a teaching tool. Countering right-wing scorn with a leftist variety feels like an adage my late artist friend Matt Lamb was fond of: If you mud-wrestle with a pig, don’t be surprised if you wind up filthy. I never posted the picture.  


I’d like to believe Mount Dora is more about sushi and Spanish moss than machine guns. I’d like to think it’s as pluralistic as “Many Wests” and my Thanksgiving dinner. I want to believe education and activism are incrementally loosening the strangleholds of provincialism and divisiveness, DeSantis & Co. and their right-wing cancel culture notwithstanding. I believe our dread of the future is premature. I’m convinced there’s still hope for the old melting pot.

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