American Fiction

A plea for conservation at MONA

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

To visit “American Fiction,” the new installation at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art, is to enter Robert McCauley’s vivid imagination. This harvest of 27 years worth of work reveals first-rate wildlife portraiture and a moving plea for conservation.

McCauley grew up on the Swinomish Reservation. The son of a logger, he watched the Skagit forests fall. He studied art at Western Washington and Washington State universities before a long career as professor and chairman of the art department at Rockford University in Illinois. His work has been widely collected by private individuals, institutions and government agencies. 

Many pictures are in a self-consciously 19th century style. The massive wooden frames and layers of luminous glazing give “The Explorer” and “George Catlin and Friends” a foreboding darkness. Curiously, live animals crawl over the naturalists, as if they had given up collecting dead specimens.

Others are puzzling. McCauley paints lots of bears. It’s said he gives them “human eyes.” In “Meanwhile, In Another Part of the Forest,” bears and other animals form a squirming pyramid: swan, squirrel, rabbit, moose, bison, snail, two fauns and a Clark’s nutcracker.

What are we to make of all this? McCauley doesn’t leave us guessing. He explains each image with its trenchant comment on the destruction of native cultures and the natural environment.

“When Worlds Collide” depicts an ancient Native American village, perhaps abandoned because of (European-introduced) smallpox. Fronting the painting are four world globes, which symbolize European dominance. One from the 1930s depicts the high tide of white power: Ethiopia, then only recently conquered, is labeled “Italian Northeast Africa.” And north is at the top, because that’s where Europeans come from.

“Contact” also shows a ruined village. The painting is scratched by the broken arm of a plaster angel. McCauley explains, “Missionaries brought their god in the form of plaster angels. The arm swings, leaving a permanent scar on the people.” This is shorthand for theft of land, cultural goods and removing children to government schools where native language and culture was laundered out of them. 

The next act in the tragedy has been the destruction of forests and wildlife. A bear and a fox have nowhere to go but a stump. Holes in the stump are “eyes of a vacant witness.” A very narrow frame confines a bear—“The Only West Left is the One in Your Head.”

In some images, a microphone hangs before the animals. Will the witness for them kindly speak up? A dotted line may record the flight of a bee or symbolize data collection—as in “What does it all mean?”

In “Leap Too,” a salmon flings itself out of polluted water. And my favorite, “Abandoning the Sublime,” shows a squirrel, rabbit, bee, two birds and a frog leaping out of the picture frame. Shades of Stephen Hawking; can we please escape our dimension?

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