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The Weird West

Gary Emrich employs both photography and film in his elegant, playful, provocative, and often humorous art. Emrich builds eloquent narratives around staged images – often incorporating found objects – suggesting the promise or potential in America’s 19th century exploration of the West, 20th century ventures into space, and 21st century consumerism.

Emrich states that “In the American West, water flows uphill to money. In my artistic practice I continue to investigate the role of water as a commodity in the West as well as its delivery systems. The Firewater suite challenges mythic notions of the West.”

In this series, Emrich creates scenes using antique liquor decanters shaped like Western icons posed against backgrounds taken from contemporary bottled-water labels. Through vibrant, appealing images with ironic titles such as Photographer with Ozarka Spring, the artist calls our attention to current struggles with western water rights issues of the sort that Denver Post art critic Ray Rinaldi states “optimistic settlers could not have imagined.” Although most of the optimistic settlers represented on the decanters are western “types” and do not depict actual historic figures, in this instance the subject is specifically the 19th century photographer William Henry Jackson. To appropriately extend Emrich’s metaphor of western settlement and commodification, the artist has included a background image of Jackson’s defining documentary achievement and 19th century symbol of Manifest Destiny, Mount of the Holy Cross.

Emrich is a Colorado-based artist whose work has been exhibited for over 30 years and is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Colorado Art Museum, and the Denver Art Museum, along with numerous other public and private collections. In the FAC collection, this photograph will join the strong and growing category of contemporary photographs and will extend the FAC’s region-specific narratives surrounding Western art and culture.