The University of Arizona Museum of Art and Archive of Visual Arts

Changing Views: Queering U.S. Landscapes

Alan Sonfist, Natural Cultural Landscape, Sculpture, 1985

Alan Sonfist, Natural Cultural Landscape, Sculpture, 1985

When U.S. depictions of wilderness are interpreted as allegories, portraits, and even maps of the nation, representations of pristine, pure, and virginal land are feminized. This art historical trope—the wilderness paradigm—results in representations of a newly civilized landscape that is then made whole by the strong arms of men, citizens enacting the will of a masculine and virile nation. Subsequently land is made usable and fruitful, like a settler that sows fields before reaping the harvest or a pioneer that tirelessly bushwhacks the American West.

By configuring land as something conquered and claimed, or land as incomplete without certain men, landscape genre representations depict masculine power and male privilege as well as dominion over land and women. In addition to visual rhetorics of sexism and male entitlement, therefore, an assumed heterosexuality is normalized too. Wherein a union of land and nation is allegorized and personified in inseparable masculine and feminine terms, which are consonant with the state. Complicating this paradigm once more, after the American landscape is mapped and civilized and the familial state sufficiently produced, the face of a heterosexual nation is racialized. In view of Mt. Rushmore, for example, native territory that is marked by Gutzon Borglum’s portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, this racist heterosexism and heteropatriarchal ideology emerges clearly, historically, and contemporary—each portrait constructs national identity embodied and branded by visions of whiteness, heterosexuality, and masculinity respective to the times. “Changing Views” rethinks a landscape mastered by virile supremacists: slaveholding Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, reluctant abolitionist President Abraham Lincoln, and lacking environmentalist President Theodore Roosevelt.

Landscape pictures of America symbolize mastery over the land. They construct a nationalism of desire and progress. And, they idealize and discipline citizens into a race driven construct of marriage and family. Thus, the ability to represent land, at all, is based on a conflated assumption of privileged gender, race, and sexuality. Together, this triumvirate forms an integral imagining of the United States vis-à-vis the landscape.

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Manhood, Engraving/Roulette, 1849-1859

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Manhood, Engraving/Roulette, 1849-1859

Borrowing Sandra Soto’s term, “Changing Views” queers an assumed racist heterosexuality integral to the wilderness paradigm and proposes changing views of U.S. landscape representations. Or, this exhibition bends gendered and racialized norms that massage heterosexism as well as breed nationhood. “Changing Views” proposes a de-mastered landscape in order to assert a queer matrix of landscape representation and land use.

UAMA patrons are asked to participate in this experimental and open-ended project and posit their own questions and frustrations with mastery and desire.

  • If the wilderness paradigm is emblematic of white-male-heterosexual power, what happens after the centuries old trope is critically viewed as a center of unquestioned white supremacy and masculine tyranny?
  • What if the wilderness is not configured as pristine and virginal nor sowed and reaped? What if it is dirty, messy, and will not be mastered?
  • What if the production of state was not bound by conquering land and people? Whether men and nations delimit boundaries and property, what if land is not a possession that can be claimed or capitalized?
  • Is there such a thing as a queered or changed view of land that recognizes American Indian agency and sovereignty wherein representations of Native North Americans in landscape genre art do not signify national progress nor the success of civilizing process including annihilation and integration?
  • If the United States has been defined by a gendered, racialized and sexualized landscape, what remains of state-defined citizenship and presumed birthrights?
  • If the terrestrial frontier is drawn in more contemporary terms, such as landing on Mars or an asteroid, mapping the underwater ocean floor, probing melting polar caps, technological discoveries designed for the U.S. Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, measuring barrier-breaking science against commodification and market value, knowledge production that never settles for anything less than something sellable and answerable, in what ways is “Changing Views” malleable enough to interrogate a twenty-first century version of U.S. exceptionalism?

For encouragement, openness, and responsiveness to critical inquiry, “Changing Visions” is curated with gratitude to the University of Arizona Museum of Art. The willingness of UAMA staff to engage scholarly debate goes beyond notation: it is a characteristic of the highest caliber university museum.  Additionally, the prospect of even queering hegemonic interpretations such as the U.S. wilderness paradigm would never have occurred without Sandra Soto’s groundbreaking intellectual project, Reading Chican@ Like a Queer: The De-Mastery of Desire (University of Texas Press, 2010).