Yosemite National Park is a generous muse. Admired for its enduring beauty, the park draws more than 3 million visitors a year — many of whom seek to capture its beauty through artistic means. Indeed, art inspired by Yosemite is said to have contributed to its protection. In 1864, President Lincoln signed a bill conserving Yosemite as a federal trust — the first time land became protected.
At the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the traveling exhibition Yosemite: Art of an American Icon takes a look at art inspired by Yosemite, from its beginnings as a tourist destination to today.
The exhibition includes a number of photographs by masters such as Ansel Adams and Eadward [sic] Muybridge, early pioneers of the nature photography genre. By nature photography, though, I mean photograph as landscape painting — not just the capturing of an image, but an attempt to adopt a point of view. Adams, of course, exemplified stepping back to let the subject take center stage, but knowing just how far to step.
Yosemite’s arresting beauty has been revered by Native Americans for thousands of years, creating a different kind of tension that also hasn’t escaped artistic attention. J. Michael Walker’s “The Removal of the Miwok from Yosemite” (digital print, 2005) depicts a Victorian woman and her male companion on a cliff’s edge, the woman’s leg raised as if she just punted a Miwok Indian over the edge. Such dark humor isn’t the norm, though.
Western artists such as landscape painter Albert Bierstadt have a strong presence here. Beyond the traditionalists, contemporary artists also have their say: from Kristina Faragher’s meditative, six-minute video installation, “Gaping Mouth,” depicting scenes from the park, to Phyllis Shafer’s stylized, almost fantastical painting, “Autumn in Yosemite Valley.” A David Hockney collage is a surprise: Snapshot-sized photos are placed to form a composite image that is at once coming together and falling apart.
Other notable offerings, among many, come from painter Wayne Thiebaud, who pulls colors from rock faces that only an artist could discern. Japanese artist Chiura Obata’s paintings on silk are sublime for their simplicity.
From a go-and-do standpoint, the museum is offering the usual lineup of related activities: family days and ongoing activities set up in its resource center, including a climbing wall, and “Yoga-semite” on Fridays starting May 9.
Organized by the Museum of the American West, Autry National Center, Los Angeles, Calif., Yosemite: Art of an American Icon is on view through Aug. 3 at the Eiteljorg Museum in White River State Park. Call 317-636-9378 or visit www.eiteljorg.org for more information.