'Art of the West' inaugurates the Autry's new permanent gallery

In traditional Native American belief, spirits can inhabit seemingly inanimate things.

Can paintings, sculptures, decorative objects and handicrafts also be infused with the spirits of their subjects, and of the people who made them?

If so, the new Irene Helen Jones Parks Gallery of Art, which opens Saturday at the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park with the exhibition "Art of the West," is 4,000 square feet of haunted space where the gathered ghosts may be in tumult.

In the largest room, two Navajo wool blankets woven in the 1800s hang on a wall opposite John Gast's 1872 painting, "American Progress." One of the blankets, in simple, broad bands of black and white, is old enough to have been worn or carried on "The Long Walk," the forced march of the mid-1860s in which thousands of Navajos were herded at gunpoint by the U.S. Army from Arizona to a desolate reservation in New Mexico. Many died from exposure and disease.

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Gast's canvas, about the size of a child's sheet of drawing paper, packs an enormous historical wallop. Created four years before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, it's a paean to Manifest Destiny — the idea that Anglo Europeans inevitably and deservedly would be lords of the entire North American continent.

A titanic, fair-skinned woman in white, cradling a Bible and crowned with an American star, leads civilization (symbolized by a covered wagon, a stagecoach and steam trains) westward while Indians flee.

W. Richard West Jr., the Cheyenne Indian who is the Autry's new president, thinks the new gallery drives home the museum's complicated mission: showing the West as a geographically, historically and culturally complex region whose many peoples have converged for better and for worse.

"Ours should not be the predictable telling" in which each group or period stands apart, he said in the text of an address he gave this past week to Autry supporters at an opening preview and reception for the art gallery. "We should travel the harder, tougher road of telling the stories of the American West as they actually were lived and will continue to be …. with shades of gray and ambiguity, full of connectivity through space and time, and comprised of the good, bad and even sometimes the ugly."

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Hanging in the same room as the Navajo blankets and "American Progress" is a pictorial quilt embroidered around 1980 by a Laotian immigrant, See Lee. It shows a modern trail of tears: the flight of the artist's Hmong people to America during the late 1970s to escape Communist victors after the Hmong had fought a losing battle alongside U.S. forces.

In the same room as the Hmong quilt, the Navajo blankets and "American Progress," viewers can hover over pure coursing waters or a placid pool reflecting shadows and skies — video images, projected on the wooden floor, that Los Angeles artist Kristina Faragher captured for an Autry-commissioned piece in 2006. Can embattled spirits from the walls meet there, too, beyond their worldly suffering and strife?

Amy Scott, the Autry's visual arts curator, said the new gallery's point is for Western or West-depicting artists of different periods, styles, ethnicities and creative media to converge so that visitors can see how they complement each other, find commonalities, or conflict.

Alonso Cano's "Martyrdom of St. Sebastian" is the oldest of the 110 works on display, a mid-1600s painting created in Spain that eventually made its way to Casa de Adobe, built in Los Angeles in 1916 as a replica of an early 1800s Spanish rancho home. The newest is "Christian and Francisco," a 2013 portrait of two Latino immigrant laborers by L.A. artist John Sonsini.

Sonsini, who was at the exhibition's preview, said that Scott initially asked him to loan a portrait from "Los Vaqueros," his series on immigrant workers who live in his neighborhood. But inclusion in the new gallery "means so much to me that I said 'I'll paint a painting specifically for the installation.'"

His large, realist image of men from Honduras and El Salvador includes deliberate echoes of two paintings Scott had suggested he look at, and which now share a wall with "Christian and Francisco."Ernest Blumenschein's "New Mexico Peon," completed in 1942, shows an exhausted-looking laborer with tools in hand, and Maynard Dixon's impressionistic 1922 "Iesaka Waken" portrays a monumental robed Native American holding a peace pipe under changing skies.

Sonsini said it was a nice surprise that "The Stampede," a 1913 painting by William Robinson Leigh — whose fans dubbed him "The Sagebrush Rembrandt" — joined in the conversation from the narrow room's opposite wall by echoing the horses racing across the cowboy-style shirt worn by one of his own subjects.

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In choosing pieces for the show, Scott said, she didn't distinguish between works, such as paintings and sculptures, that are commonly thought of as fine art, and things made for daily use, such as pottery, garments and a 1948 Indian motorcycle that was built in Springfield, Mass., but included for its Western iconography — black, leather-fringed seat and saddlebags, and an Indian chief's face with a chrome art deco headdress ornamenting the front fender.

"We looked at standards that transcended boundaries," Scott said. What mattered wasn't whether something was intended to be used or just looked at, but the creators' "technical engagement with their medium and the aesthetic impact."

Treating native baskets, blankets and garments differently from paintings and sculptures "would have been taking a step backward" into the siloed approach the Autry aims to avoid, Scott said. "The guiding question," she said, was "is the aesthetic intent and effort equitable with other things in the gallery?"

The art gallery was two years in the making, Scott said. It elevates visual art to a new place of prominence at the Autry, which had focused mainly on cultural and historical displays such as "Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic" and "Katsina in Hopi Life," which currently share the museum's upper floor with the art gallery and a permanent display showcasing how Hollywood has represented the West.

The art gallery, finished for this year's 25th anniversary of the Autry's opening, replaces a much smaller visual art area where the lighting and display space were not optimal. It has four rooms — the smallest a 500-square-foot area for rotating exhibitions — plus a foyer that lays out the main themes and an alcove for photographs and works on paper that will change periodically.

The alcove, Scott calls it a "jewel box," currently features contrasting photographs of the Yosemite landscape either dwarfing or overrun and cheapened by humanity.

The three main rooms each has a theme, which Scott said will remain in place for the expected five-year run of "Art of the West": "Religion and Ritual," "Land and Landscape" (where "American Progress" and the Navajo blankets contend) and "Migration and Motion."

The rotating exhibitions room will change about three times a year, she said, emphasizing recent acquisitions or contemporary art. It currently has selections from a collection donated in 2012 by Loretta and Victor Kaufman, including a 1905 bronze statue by Frederic Remington of a cowboy and his rearing horse confronting a rattlesnake.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

'Art of the West'

Where: Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, L.A.

Admission: $10

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Information: (323) 667-2000, theautry.org