I had never visited Midland-Odessa until a week ago, but that region looms large in the iconography of Texas. Anytime a movie wants to establish that Texas is a hard, menacing, cutthroat place, it can throw a panorama of some pumpjacks mercilessly dipping on a flat expanse. Think of the opening of Blood Simple, the endless industry dotting the horizon as E. Emmet Walsh croaks, “But here in Texas you’re on your own.”
I recently drove to Midland-Odessa en route to New Mexico. As I turned off at Ozona, the roads became dustier, the road work ceaseless, and giant trucks rattled past. It was like the highways in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I had no reception on my phone, so I listened to the one CD I had, of Philip Glass-composed works for the experimental Amazonian group Uakti. The landscape attained a platonic ideal of flatness, ground the color of white ash, and signs for fresh water and land for sale everywhere. Flames from refineries and processing plants flickered in the distance like dystopic prison camps of the future. Periodically a large grid of trees would rise from nothing. Were they orchards or tree farms? It was hard to tell. In the center of each tree farm was a large, stout McMansion, usually flanked by a gleaming, boat-sized Cadillac. I thought of Peter Greenaway’s great movie The Draughtsmen Contract, about sex and power in the manicured hedges of an English estate, of how jutting wealth like a plume of oil can turn the drabbest of places into a surreal fever dream.
Upon reaching Midland, I headed directly to the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum. The Permian Basin is one of the largest oil fields ever discovered and was the largest until the Saudi oil field was discovered in 1934, leading to the U.S.’s horrific alliance with the house of Saud and the post-WWII American empire. The museum is… very odd. Seemingly designed by the same people behind Denver’s mind-rending terrorism museum The CELL, the Petroleum Museum is extremely dense (one game, ostensibly for kids, involves choosing which well option you would profit the most from, and resembles an oil-and-gas question from the Texas State Bar that I failed miserably). There is a ranting element to it. It is extremely pro-fossil fuels, and vaguely conspiratorial. OPEC is treated as a sinister global cabal (which… not untrue) that destroyed the halcyon boom days of Midland. One hilarious display case was filled with dated bottles of shampoo demonstrating all the wondrous products that contain petroleum. The creepiest part of the museum in is the Exxon-sponsored Energy City, an exhibit for kids of brightly plasticized interactive displays that takes them into a gleaming, happy world coursing with the earth’s blood. The effect of the museum is not unlike talking to your aggrieved, recently laid-off father in-law for way longer than you anticipated at a family reunion.
One recurring current in the museums in Midland-Odessa were strange, surprise exhibits that were relatively incongruous or unrelated to the museum. In the Petroleum Museum, the main exhibit on the Permian basin ends, and then there’s an extensive collection of beautiful stones — gems, quartz etc. I vaguely gathered that these were donations by various people who had gotten rich from oil. This stone exhibit alone is worth the visit, with exquisite glittering formations standing in stark contrast to the black crude the museum is built on (and is sold in little vials like vampire blood). After the rock exhibit, there’s yet another exhibit of the Chaparral race car designed by a Midland native. It’s breezy hagiography toward a very beautiful invention of games and leisure. Two visiting boomers in Hawaiian shirts, looking like late-stage Mike Love, seemed in a state of reverential awe, like a Catholic visiting Sainte Chapelle. Taken together, the exhibits in the Petroleum Museum form a strangely perceptive analysis of the culture of oil — a fevered, defensive, geopolitical paranoia, the splendors of the wealth, the grand absurdity and shock of the indulgent extremes of the internal combustion engine.
Next up was the Museum of the Southwest. As I drove through Midland, I admired a plethora of charming mid-century homes and I imagined living in one of them. Despite the purgatorial flatness of Midland, the region has a lure, an austere charm. Every museum is chock-full of cowboy poetry, cowboy narratives, and memoirs. Midland is an infinity pool of dust looking out over the mirage of “the West.”
The museum includes the Turner family mansion and a modern extension. The Turners were the wealthiest family in post-war Midland, having won a lawsuit for a highly lucrative claim of oil. They ascended in that mythic West Texas story of oil wealth, like the Cybil Shepherd’s sad, flush clan in The Last Picture Show. The stately mansion has a tinge of sorrow itself. Juliette Turner, the matriarch of the fortune, was murdered in 1963 under fairly shady circumstances. The patriarch, Fred Turner, died a few months later.
The museum is a highlight of Midland. It has a first-rate collection of art of the west, with a fairly interesting and progressive rotating exhibition program. These are jewels in Texas: regional museums of the rich familial dynasties — the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas; The McNay in San Antonio; and of course, most impressively, the Menil Collection in Houston. There’s a simplicity to the narrative of converting resources to lavish estates and then turning them into art museums that seems almost quaint at this point. The most affecting at exhibit at the Museum of the Southwest is photographs from the Isleta Puebla in New Mexico from the late 19th century. Railroad companies forcibly gained lands through the Puebla in 1881 and tourists began to flock to the area with great fascination. This exhibit crystalizes the white expansion of the west, and how colonialism in general is driven by an aesthetic pull of “the exotic” entwined with contemporaneous self-mythologizing. Erase the past and create your own myth — a hero’s march amongst these “strange” new people.
The surprise exhibit in the Museum of the Southwest is in the lugubriously titled Turner Legacy Galleries. Situated in the Turner Mansion, it feels akin to a wing of the Vatican in terms of its solemnity and piety. What is in the Turner Legacy Galleries? An extremely self-aggrandizing shrine to the Kentucky Derby and the two Derby Winners the Turners owned. Chock full of display cases and breathless Derby reverence, one display case of the Turner’s two Derby trophies, arranged like the grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, includes the quote by “newspaper man” Irving Cobb: “Until you go to Kentucky and with your own eyes behold the Derby, you ain’t never been nowhere and you ain’t never seen nothing.” (Hard disagree, Irv.) I audibly chuckled walking through this section and felt wistful thinking of a time when the rich were completely enamored with racing horses, instead of now, when they mine data to elect fascists and engage in megalomaniacal, Moonraker-esque space exploration and vampiric blood therapy.
Next up was a 20-minute drive to Odessa. Midland, historically, was the wealthy town, the manager town, and Odessa the town of the roughnecks, the strip clubs, and the dive bars. This is readily apparent. Odessa — hollowed out, semi-shuttered, and howling with hot wind — is one of the bleaker cities I’ve visited in Texas. The Ellen Noel Art Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, is considerably less impressive than the Museum of the Southwest, but it’s free and worth a quick visit. The highlight is its brilliant large mural, The Stampede, by Tom Lea, from 1940. A visceral panorama of a bull stampede, the piece, like the best southwestern art, contains a charge of velocity and vitality akin to Italian futurism. The two rotating exhibits I caught were slight but charming. One collected the various dresses and costumes made by Texas-born Hollywood seamstresses and included the biographies of small-town Texas women who made glittering cowboy outfits for Jane Russell and Tab Hunter. The other, titled Cut Up/Cut Out, collected local, national, and international artists who work with piercing and cutting methods. I at first thought the exhibit was closed because in a bit of provincial caution there were signs everywhere to “NOT TOUCH THE ART.” The quality of the works ranged wildly, from pieces that could be in a Neiman Marcus window display, to subtle and challenging works such as Ana Bidart’s carved register rolls that resemble eroding glaciers.
After a long day, I wanted to grab a beer in Odessa. An aficionado of dive bars, I thought I had settled on a spot called Tumbleweeds, but when I drove by, the “bar” was a house with a cardboard sign stapled to it with “Tumbleweeds” scrawled in black sharpie marker, and approximately nine giant trucks with confederate-flag bumper stickers parked outside. Interrupting some MAGA bros spinning homicidal fantasies about their family court judges, six shots of Wild Turkey deep, was not what I had in mind, so I headed back to my hotel in Midland.
On the drive back, I passed perhaps the most relevant piece of art on my visit. A mural outside a gun range that depicts a bucolic scene of a father and son hunting flows into a scene of a busty, enraged, and fearful woman who resembles Laura Ingraham levelling a gun at some unseen threat in front of a billowing American Flag. This is one summation of the direction of the country, and especially the state of Texas.