Cara Despain is an artist working in film and video, sound, sculpture, photography and installation addressing issues of land use/ownership, climate change, visualizing the Anthropocene and the persistent problematic dimensions of frontierism and their impacts on eco- and social systems. She was born in Salt Lake City, Utah and currently lives in Miami, Florida and works between the two. She holds a BFA from the University of Utah (2006). She was selected for a 2021 Harpo Foundation Award, and in 2021 she completed her first permanent public art commission for the Underline with Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places. She was also a finalist for the Creative Capital award in 2021, and participated in a fieldwork mentorship program with Southeast Arts and Fieldscreen International which was supported by a grant from the Australian Government. Her work is included in the Rubell Family and Scholl Collections, as well as the State of Utah, Salt Lake County, and Miami-Dade County and Miami International Airport art collections and was recently added to the New Mexico Statue University Art Museum permanent collection. Recent solo exhibitions include “Specter New Mexico” at the New Mexico State University Art Museum in Las Cruces, New Mexico (2023); “Specter” at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, Florida (2022); and “In Memoriam: Carbon Paintings” at the Kimball Art Center in Park City, Utah (2021). Selected group exhibitions include “2023 Florida Prize in Contemporary Art”, Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando, Florida; “#FAIL”, Contemporary Art Center New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana (2022); and two-person exhibition “Fractured Landscapes" at Arts and Culture Center of Hollywood, Hollywood, Florida (2021).Despain’s work has been featured in numerous publications such as The Guardian, Hyperallergic.com, Thirdtext.org, The Art Newspaper, Sculpture Magazine. A short documentary about her and her work aired on Art Loft, WPBT and PBS and screened at the Miami International Film Festival (2016). She has lectured at museums and universities across the country, and has presented her work at symposia such at IKT International Curator Association Congress (2019), Common Field (2020) , Ground at University of Southern California (2021) and the College Art Association conference (2023).
Land ownership tells the story of the United States in its entirety, and the American Frontier is both an icon and a case-study interpreted the world over as a successful “conquering” or “taming” of the wild, settlement and resource acquisition. It changed the landscape and displaced many peoples, replacing an entire notion of and relationship to home with a new one. The story of who lays claim to what territory and how it was secured/stolen/extracted is wrought with violence, oppression and achievement pageantry. National pride and the idea of ‘homeland’ is a constructed mosaic that has destroyed many preexisting notions of the same. I've been working through the issues of land use as it relates historically to settlement, expansion, resource exploitation, and the development of the military-industrial complex in the North American frontier for some time. I now feel a new urgency toward scrutinizing lineages of obscured truth and how they are impacting both the landscape and climate and our collective psyche. As I’ve been sorting through what it means to perpetuate iconic images of the American west as an artist, I’ve had to critically examine my own proximity to them and how I can strategically use familiarity and that sense of ownership to reveal harder truths. From the Romantics to the Hudson River School to John Ford, landscape has been a repository for fantasy, identity, narrative and epic. As an aesthetic endeavor, it has often served as somewhat of an advertisement or propaganda—for expansionism, industry, and homesteading. I often use nostalgic, romantic tactics and depictions of land that are fueled by tourism and national pride—borrowing from the language of Western cinema, Warner Bros. cartoons, sculptural portraiture and monuments, postcards and calendars to tap into a sense of the familiar. These are things that reinforce notions of Manifest Destiny and instill a sense of desire and entitlement. Yet who exactly feels claim to national treasures’ or the spoils of westward expansion? Much of any country’s cultural disposition can be attributed to the acquisition of land and ultimately, wealth and at whose expense and on whose backs those assets came. How the western territories were settled, tamed, stolen, mined, parceled and managed contain often conflicting narratives of prosperity, hope, faith, disappointment, and decimation wrought with racism, classism, and sexism that persist in our national cultural identity still. It’s amazing how easily they are lost in the panoramic vistas and splendor of the frontier.
For the last several years I have lived in Miami, Florida and used a longer lens to view the consequences of industrialization and extraction of western resources by way of observable sea level rise. The cause and effect relationship I see between my two split locales has incited for a challenge to communicate and translate across regions and connect the dots between actions and outcomes through time. As I watch the water level during King Tides rise up to peoples’ waists on Miami Beach and swallow roads whole, and see the infrastructural [temporary] solutions and whom they benefit, I think about uranium and coal mining, fracking in my home state, the Nevada Test Site, the oil boom in Vernal, Utah, and the L.A. Aqueduct and who they affect—and importantly, how they are all related. Capitalism and development, and all the problematic things that sustain them including subjugation of certain disempowered peoples, and destruction of the environment in the name of progress have been a part of the country’s disposition since the beginning. And often, they are hiding in plain sight.