American Progress: Wendy Red Star’s Exhibition at the Anderson Collection
This story is among a series written by CCSRE's 2022 Public Writing Fellows.
If you have ever entered a pool or a bathtub, you have probably noticed that as your body sinks, water overflows and spills over the sides. This reflects Archimedes’ principle, which, for over two thousand years, has explained a fundamental part of reality that seems relatively obvious to us. The spillover effect of a body submerged in a fluid is so obvious it may go unnoticed or may appear unremarkable. Yet, when it comes to the history of American empire-building, Apsáalooke artist Wendy Red Star has made it her life's work to revere the outlying spaces and those who have been forced to occupy them.
When she first encountered John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress in a 101 Art History class as an undergrad at Montana State University, she was startled. As her professor spoke at length about the formal aspects of the artwork, she was impressed instead by, in her own words, “the things that were literally falling off the edge of the canvas.” In the painting, as the white settlers enter into the frame by the East and expand westward, with domesticated animals and cutting-edge technology, hordes of Native Americans flee along with the bison and other wild animals before heading into the edge of the painting (and history) into oblivion. However, displacement of one body by another is accompanied by a corresponding resistance. Wendy Red Star: American Progress, which is currently on display at the Anderson Collection, is an example of that long and oppressive history of colonial violence while it also forefronts Native American legacies of presence and perseverance.
Having grown up as part of the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation in Montana, Red Star never thought to ask why she lived on a reservation or even what a reservation was. That was just home, she told me as I interviewed her during her visit at Stanford. Only after taking a series of Native Studies courses in college, something she thought would be an easy "A," did she begin asking questions about why. She had no idea at the time that the synergy created by her training in Art History and Native Studies would become the buoyant force that would lead her to create an exhibition for Stanford University ten years later. Wendy Red Star: American Progress revisits her old malaise with regard to the displacement of Native Americans and the native fauna from their lands as an intensely racialized civilization spread across North America, from coast to coast, following a self-proclaimed destiny.
Reappropriating Gast's title, Red Star’s American Progress offers a more comprehensive and complex version of North American history. When I asked about her intention for this exhibition, Red Star informed me that it was less about rewriting history and more about “making visible what is actually already there.” Her goal was to unearth those narratives that, like the displaced people in Gast’s painting, have been subsumed into a ghostly time. This is the case, for example, of Runs in the Valley. The piece is a recreation of the "Golden Spike," also known as “The Last Spike,” Leland Stanford hammered in 1869 to mark the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in North America. There is, nonetheless, one crucial difference. Instead of Leland Stanford's name etched on the spike’s golden surface, Red Star’s spike shows the Crow inscription "You are without relatives," used mostly as an insult to remind people that without community, we are nothing— a truth that, in Wendy’s eyes, colonial expansion tried to erase.
On a deeper level, Red Star’s exhibition revisits a page of the history of Stanford's campus that has been subsumed into obscurity. Leland Stanford was one of the so-called “Big Four,” a group of businessmen who formed the Central Pacific Railroad to complete the western part of the project. The Stanford Railroad not only invaded thousands of acres of Native American land, the “Iron Horse,” as Native Americans used to call it, also threatened the buffalo, which was the primary food source for many tribes. As a founder and president of the company, Leland Stanford became substantially wealthy which would eventually allow the construction of the Stanford campus.
As I walked through Red Star’s exhibition, I got the feeling her pieces were teaching me to see and read again. In Their Land, Red Star shows a big black map of the US, marked with hundreds of white flags where, she explained to me, federal and state recognized Native American territories exist, and where people live in allotments assigned by the Government. The Crow people don’t have a word in their language for allotment. Whenever they want to speak of another’s allotment, they just say “their land,” Red Star’s father had told her. It was the vagueness of the term that clashed strongly against the West's obsession with private property that interested Red Star. Whose land? And so she used "their land" to name the piece. I told Red Star how impressed I was about the high concentration of flags especially in the Western states. "It's Manifest Destiny," she replied. Red Star later told me instead that she had been "pleasantly surprised in a horrible way" when she first realized how many tribes existed in the East. Ultimately, that is what Their Land seeks to inspire in spectators, a mix of surprise and horror by confronting us with our own failure in seeing what has always been there, but that our lapsed gaze often forgets how to notice.
Among all the pieces in the exhibition, the most interesting are, perhaps, the ones that feature Lady Columbia. The piece American Progress, which gives the exhibit its name, is a paint-by-numbers replica of Gast’s original work, painted collaboratively with Stanford students. Unlike the original that is rather small, Red Star’s is a mural-size painting, covering an entire wall of a small room upholstered with astroturf, similar in size to the enlarged image she saw ten years ago in her art history class projected onto the classroom wall. The other one is the 10-foot inflatable Lady Columbia suspended in the gallery lobby above the spectators heads. “I'm still trying to figure out lady Columbia,” said Red Star, who had just seen the exhibition mounted for the first time that morning before I interviewed her. While Columbia has long been thought of as the personification of White America, Red Star approaches her from another point of view, as a disruptor. “She's sort of like the scratch on the record,” she said.
Finally, the two lithographs Dust and Four Generations, are the last pieces of the exhibition, along with the buffalo series. In Red Star’s own words, these pieces are meant to “build a legacy for her daughter.” In Four Generations, for example, the Apsáalooke artist depicts her grandmother, her father, herself and her daughter, all around the same age in a piece that weaves their genealogy together. “We, as federally recognized Native people, are the only people in the U.S. that have to carry around cards. How much blood quantum we have. And so I happen to have the right amount of blood, but my child doesn't.” With this piece, Red Star rages against the fact that, according to US government standards, her daughter won’t be able to claim her Crow identity because her blood quantum does not grant her official membership. “So, these pieces are so no one ever denies her legacy,” she said emphatically.
Wendy Red Star: American Progress will be on display at the Anderson Collection at Stanford University through August 28th, 2022 and it is free to the public.
Alberto Quintero is a 2022 CCSRE Public Writing Fellow and a Ph.D. Candidate in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University.