Luckily I was alone when I entered Melora Kuhn’s new exhibit at EIGEN+ART Leipzig because I am quite sure I squealed with excitement. The promo had not prepared me for the reality of it.
In the center of the large gallery space is a wooden framed structure that instantly made me think of the Wild West. I entered to find myself in a room with walls somewhere between lush tropical forest and landscapes that are unmistakably the western US.
I have long wondered how a span of about 20 years remains so present in the minds of the world. Melora Kuhn explores the complexities of a history that is much more complicated than movies would have us believe.
I was happy to be able to interview Melora this week. She is based in German Town, New York, and it is clear from her work that she has long studied all the intricacies of this challenging time in US history. It was a time of struggle and emancipation. Women were property. Blacks were slaves. Indians were an impediment. There was a new life waiting on the other coast – and gold to be found – if you could survive the journey and get the rightful inhabitants out.
Melora uses images from actual photos and events of the time.
The walls in the structure and backgrounds in many of her paintings are based on the Zuber woodblock wall papers that are still in production today. On one wall in the structure hangs a painting of Olive Oatman, on the other Herman Melville intertwined with Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Olive Oatman’s family was attacked by Indians on their journey west. Olive (14) and her sister (7) survived and were held hostage for a year before being traded to the Mohave. They treated her as part of the tribe. The tattoo on her chin was typical of Mohave women and was an honour.
She was devastated upon being forced to leave the Mohave. At first, her story paints them as loving and light-hearted. Later she became a speaker and her story changed. She said the chin tattoo was there like a branding to help return captives when lost. In the white man’s society, this was necessary for her survival. The Indians needed to be vilified and shown as savages in order to justify to the public our treatment of them.
Later she married well, but never had children. She died of depression, a result of PTSD. Was this a result of being held captive, being set free or of just trying to reconcile the two?
Melville (Moby Dick) and Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter) are layered one upon the other for a reason. Melville idolised Hawthorne and they actually knew each other. It is said they were lovers despite both having wives and children. Homosexuality was illegal. It was considered unnatural.
Above the mantel we find buffalo in a natural history museum.
In the solution to the “Indian problem,” one of the many strategies was to remove their food source, the buffalo. 50 million were killed in a span of 20 years.
This was also to clear a place for cattle and the railroad that connected the coasts. Chinese workers came to work. Melora includes that in her wallpaper in this painting featuring Olive Oatman.
In addition to getting 160 acres of free land to work in Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act, the invention of the camera and the massive press campaign, the Hudson River School painters glorified the expansion out west. Melora and I both joked about being bored while learning about them in art class. Now we both have a purpose for that knowledge.
The canvases of the Hudson River School romanticised the American landscape.
The railroad made it possible to travel 1,950 miles (3,138 km) to California in 4 weeks. Prior to that it had taken 4 to 6 months by wagon train. There was still the danger of bandits or Indians attacking the “Iron Horse.” It was an exciting and dangerous time.
In Melora’s version, she simply removes the Native Americans from the image. If we ignore them, they will go away. I am happy to say they have not gone away, but what pains me is that to this day, the government continues to treat them with disrespect. Any time their land is deemed to be of value, we simply remove them from the picture. It is truly our dark past. Like Melora, I think it should never be forgotten.
One of the things that really drew me to Melora’s work was the paint by number style of the background of the paintings. She did this to mirror the wood block printing of the Zuber wall papers. It reminded me of doing this with my mother as a kid. I loved the smell of the paint. I loved watching the image come to life like a polaroid.
Started in the 50s, Paint by Number is a bit of Americana in itself.
This work was not as easy as one might think. It took a while to decide which lines to draw to create the right effect. Melora did end up numbering it and the corresponding colours in the process. She did it all by sight, no computers involved. All I can say is wow!
I am sure the German public will be as excited about the show as I am, but for a different reason. They are fascinated with Native Americans and the Wild West. I love the execution and the telling of the story. Seeing her show and combining what I have found out over the years, I see why the Wild West remains in our psyche. It is a combination of the adrenaline of danger, the freedom to live off the land, the advance of modern technology; but mostly we continue to see what the publicity machine of the time wanted us to see. Can these real life stories of individuals help us see past that?
Good art inspires us to feel while moving us to think.
Melora Kuhn’s The Drawing Room is good art.