- Unsettled by JoAnne Northrup
FROM THE MOMENT YOU OPEN THE BOOK, the very nature of its construction will unsettle you. Instead of a book bound at the spine and packaged neatly between two covers that open right to left, Unsettled's binding is exposed, and the spine that faces you is a false one—the book is wrapped in its cover, and you must open two flaps in order to get inside. In this manner, this large format becomes even larger. It is not a book to casually flip through—the materials themselves force you to sit down with the images and text at a table and spend some time with them.
Unsettled is primarily an exhibition catalog and conference publication. Curated by JoAnne Northrup in consultation with the artist Ed Ruscha, the exhibition features works by artists both living and dead, yet all grappling with, in some way, issues about indigeneity and the environment. The travel exhibition has three hosts: the Nevada Museum of Art (August 26, 2017–January 21, 2018), the Anchorage Museum, Alaska (April 6–September 9, 2018), and the Palm Springs Art Museum, California (October 27, 2018–February 18, 2019). Sprinkled throughout the often large-format illustrations are limited text and twitter poems by Allison Warden.
Northrup calls Unsettled "a dialogue across time and space," positioning the exhibition as a sort of ongoing practice featuring artworks that tell stories of the North American West. They are organized into five thematic areas: "Shifting Ground," "Colliding Cultures," "Colonizing Resources," "The Sublime Open," and "Experimental Diversity." While the exhibition highlights the work of a diverse group of artists, many contemporary, others older, the work of LA artist Ed Ruscha features prominently and is included within each theme, often serving as a touchstone for the overall exhibition and thematic layout. In fact, Ruscha's bold use of color and suggestive text, combined with what Northrup describes as his "insightful yet dispassionate vision of our world," seem to even serve as graphic inspiration for the catalog itself.
Ruscha's work is a perfect place to begin this discussion because it is never attached to singular meanings—and as the catalog itself does, his paintings unsettle the viewer, not allowing them to be grounded in the American West they are so often attached to. His work is evocative, never [End Page 196] descriptive. Because of this starting point, the West pictured in this catalog not only is the West of the American "frontier" but also connects to the Arctic Circle, the Bikini Atoll, and Australia's Great Victoria Desert, among other places. It feels at many points like the West is not only a shifting ground but also essentially ungrounded—and this is certainly a strength of this catalog.
This wide berth and nonspecific point of departure allow the curators to cover an impressive range of material, juxtaposing artists as far apart thematically and chronologically as Brian Jungen and Emily Carr and including pottery from Mexico dated 100 BC–AD 250 alongside performance and video art. These combinations are far from obvious, and while they are interesting, readers are sometimes at the mercy of the catalog essays to begin to form a meaningful interpretation. Worded differently, what can be said is that these curatorial choices are tricky: the works illustrated are often opaque, they require the viewer to work hard in order to arrive at meaning, and the comparisons offered by the curators require even more effort. But this is by no means a bad thing—viewers of art should be asked to work hard. Cultural meaning is not easy, especially concerning topics as complex as sovereignty, environmentalism, indigeneity, and settler colonialism. And while the catalog essays help elucidate meaning in these juxtapositions to some extent, they are in no way didactic. They encourage readers to flip back to illustrations and think harder. In many places, the authors raise more questions than they answer, making this catalog and exhibition an excellent tool for the study and teaching of art history, contemporary art, Indigenous critical theory, and the legacy of settler colonialism. I look forward to adding it, in...