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Exploring our Western roots at Tacoma Art Museum

Tobey, Bartow and Markovitz and a few other pleasant surprises make this show

Victor Maldonado, "Cross Road," 2002. Hand-stamped ink on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 1/8 inches. Tacoma Art Museum, gift of the artist and Froelick Gallery, Portland

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As theme shows culled from a museum's permanent collection go, "Northwest in the West: Exploring Our Roots" is not half bad.

There are works that have been shown at TAM multiple times before, like Gaylen Hansen's iconic "Kernal Riding Through Snakes" and William Ivey's "Blues and Whites," and that's all right because both of those are great paintings worth viewing again and again. There are also some fabulous pieces I have never before seen, such as Mark Tobey's "Northwest Fantasy," Rick Bartow's "Old Time Picture" and Sherry Markovitz's mind-boggling sculpture of a mounted moose head, "Eternal Vigilance."

I have to admit that I went to this show with less than stellar expectations because I have an aversion to cowboy art and clichéd, grandiose Western landscapes, no matter how skillfully executed. But those works by Tobey, Bartow and Markovitz, plus a few other pleasant surprises, definitely make this show worth seeing.

>>> Thomas Mickell Burnham, "The Lewis and Clark Expedition," circa 1850. Oil on canvas, 36 1/2 x 48 inches. Tacoma Art Museum, Haub Family Collection, promised gift of Erivan and Helga Haub.

The Tobey, while similar in some ways to his signature work, is in other ways unlike anything else of his. But then he was a prolific painter, and there may be many more like this one that I haven't seen. It has some of the all-over design and sparkle of his so-called "white painting" but is more luminous with layers of transparent white washes that flow across the canvas in lyrical poetry of motion.

Bartow's painting is a huge and menacing head painted in a rough, gestural manner that calls on Native American traditions while displaying drawing with paint reminiscent of both de Kooning and Basquiat.

Markovitz's moose head is made of papier-mache and encrusted with beads, oil paint, sequins, acrylic paint and fiberglass in homage to both Native American crafts and the Western tradition of mounting animal-head trophies on the wall.

>>> Guy Anderson, "Winter Wheat," 1953. Oil on board, 24 x 30 inches. Tacoma Art Museum, gift of Maude Rueger.

There is even some traditional cowboy art with a contemporary twist such as William Cumming's "Kay Gee Doc," a pop-art inspired painting of a cowboy herding a calf, and Justin Colt Beckman's video "Gunplay (Screen Test)." In Beckman's video an actor practices (or ineptly demonstrates) the art of the fast-draw and gun-twirl in front of a green screen. It's like one of Andy Warhol's films of people doing nothing or endlessly repeating something, only it's done with great dry wit. This cowboy has clearly not mastered the art of gunplay.

Unfortunately, there is a large charcoal drawing by Paul Harcharik hanging on a panel directly across from Beckman's video. It's a nice drawing but the worst placement imaginable because it is framed under glass and the bright video reflects in the surface making it impossible to see the drawing. Someone at TAM, please swap this piece with another one somewhere else in the gallery.

I was pleased to see that local favorites Bill Colby and Mary Randlett are both included in this show. Colby's watercolor, "Aurora Violet," is a landscape with a lower section that looks like Sumi painting and a large and stormy sky above with a beautiful use of dark violet, blue and gray. Randlett's photograph, "Emerging City, Seattle," is a marvelously nuanced photo of the city skyline emerging from a hazy sky in beautiful and ghostly tones of gray.

This show is a precursor to the new wing of the museum to feature the Haub Family Collection of Western American Art scheduled to open in the fall.

"NORTHWEST IN THE WEST: EXPLORING OUR ROOTS," 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, through Fall 2015, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, $8-$10, 253.272.4258

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