Sunset Décor is a prodigious exhibit of Western art from the 19th century to the present day. Curated by Magalí Arriola, the artists and archives selected are both historical and contemporary, spanning the aftermath of the industrial revolution and the dawn of global warfare, reaching into the present day. Arriola has carefully selected works which share in some way, an interest in phenomena of colonialism, nationhood and freedom. The exhibit as a whole displays the socially constructed backdrop of these ideas in the cultural imaginary, particularly within the symbolic significance of land and ‘nature.’

In some of the works, modern Western history is presented in faux forensic snapshots. The advent of the camera brought on a new era of social ideas about realism and objectivity. Many of the artists in this exhibit use the camera and photographs in subversive ways that question the validity in scientific methods of documenting and identifying. New Jersey born artist, David Wojnarowicz and Japanese artist, Hiroshi Sugimoto both took interest in late 20th Century Natural Sciences displayed in the museum, a site of American national identity. Both artists photographed elaborate museum dioramas of wildlife. For Sugimoto, the camera constructs an illusion of realness to a taxidermy wilderness scene, demonstrating the power of the photographic medium to produce a false sense of truth. In Wajnarowicz’s piece, Untitled (Buffalo) the depiction of buffalo falling to their death is both an elusive abstraction of a diorama, and a document of an ethnographic moment – a Western colonial rendering of Indigenous buffalo hunting.

Imagery of the colonial era and the Western frontier occur throughout the exhibit. Like the dioramas of natural history, archival posters and other ephemera of old Hollywood Westerns visualize a New World colonial narrative. Gertrude Kasebier’s photographs from the late 19th century present portraits of the Dakota Sioux that are acutely anthropological. Reading Kasebier’s images in the context of this exhibit, however, the anthropological subject is not the indigenous culture, but rather the theatrics of colonialism. In Sioux Indians drawing in Kasebier’s Studio, (1898), two people sit facing one another in an urban studio space, dressed in traditional costume. The contradiction of foreground and background is the result of the historical vaudeville performance, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild Wild West,” where Kasebier photographed her subjects traveling through New York City. Kasebier’s images unconsciously function as behind the scenes documentation of the theatrical production of Manifest Destiny in American Culture.

The symbolic significance of land and ‘nature’ in Western history seethes in the objects of this show. Sitting in tension with some of the historical artworks, contemporary artists present these same American themes with self awareness and conscious criticism. Trevor Paglen and Danh Vo reference archival landscape photographs within their work, calling attention to the way landscape imagery was leveraged in Western expansion narratives.

Sunset Décor takes its name from a mid 20th century series of room installations produced by Marcel Broodthaers in the final years of his life entitled, Décor: A Conquest. Drawing on the canon of Western museological display, Broodthaers assembled collections of social objects into two rooms, arranged as stage-like settings of the 19th and 20th Century Western world. The rooms were filled with weapons of war and home furnishings, evoking a cold material juxtaposition of domestic and foreign affairs. Broodthaers’ museological display of social objects provoked the hegemony the national history narrative in a poignant way, causing the work to receive much criticism for its day. The impetus for Décor: A Conquest work informs the current exhibit both politically and creatively. Whereas Broodthaers’ rooms show off emboldened objects from the American Dream, Sunset Décor presents the narrative as less alive and well. The title is both an homage to the artist and a euphemism for impending death, perhaps alluding to the sunsetting hour of the colonial imaginary.

– Erika Barbosa

Installation View of Sunset Décor at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, 2017
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