Regionalism: A Sense of Place Part Two, by April Rapier

In the spring issue of SPOT April Rapier wrote the first of two articles on regional art: “Why Regional Photographers Don’t Take Their Works Seriously (Enough).” The Texas Landscape, organized by the guest curator Susie Kalil, for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (May 17 – September 7), offers Rapier a fitting subject for the critique of the generic in a regionalist theme – the “untamable land of Texas.”
Quotations from the slide/tape presentation of the exhibition entitled The Texas Landscape, 1900-1986, float through memory in somewhat contradictory accompaniment to the work. With most every conceivable genre of painting and combination of mixed media represented (by 82 artists, 22 of whom are photographers), every vintage photographic vision in attendance, the quote (although made applicable only to the environmental sculpture of Don Shaw) “no burden of precedent, only the challenge of originality” rings inaccurate. The work is in all aspects a continuum based on a dominant and unique theme – the untamable land of Texas - not its people, nor its achievements. The photographs are representational, the paintings and works on paper are expansive thematically, the sculpture is whimsical and clichéd. But they are in a sense our history and the essence of the art as a story of beginnings and metamorphosis is as curious and sustaining as it is unforgettable. Incorporating all the correct formulas – feathers and bones, oil to grand vistas, cows (and manure) moving region to region, the clichés grandstand, and the sweet details are lost in the fray. Georgia O’Keeffe departs from the pack as does Casey Williams and Earl Staley, exemplary non-conformists, but most others try to imitate such concepts as “sky” or at best capture them without going the necessary step(s) farther.
There are more than enough implied connections and comparisons drawn between painting and photography (demonstrated in the placement of the art), excluding the obvious – light sensitive emulsion on stretched canvas (Bob Wade’s faded, vintage-looking “Whitney, Texas Picturesque” of dead wolves hanging on a fence), photographs used in collage, hand-colored photographs – to spark a tie between the two historically at-odds media. Although this is a point in its favor, the overall selection stacks up with photography being safe and documentary, painting and paper-works interpretive, sculpture in its obsession with the most generic clichés and icons rarely superceding cute, a direct descendant of full. (I am, admittingly, not much of a fan of contemporary sculpture.) Sometimes, the sculpture incorporates a feeling of collage (Guy Johnson in “Tropic Sport Shoe”), which better represents the kind of experience one might have when examining the concept “landscape” in the context “Texas.” (This manner of categorization comes to the forefront of one’s experience of the work again and again, more often than not.) Environmental sculpture, in its design, wildly vacillates between that which edifies (structurally and pedagogically) by contradiction and that which attempts an integration ranging from anonymity to passive acceptability. Both share the absolute goal of fusion. Neither transition is initially seamless. Whether a construction whose design is to stimulate the earth around it evokes a sense of growth from its surroundings ultimately succeeds has little to do with “precedent or originality,” however, for conceptual origins are rarely born of site-specific locales. Surely the concept of forming tons of concrete into boxes, in order to reform a landscape (Donald Judd, near Marfa, Texas) has less in common with the land, or a “sense of place” (the show motto) than it does with some conceptual notion or translation of “the land”. These indulgences in wretched excess are more shrines to power over the land (using the ultimate symbols of permanence and performance – steel and concrete, extending civilization into relative wilderness), at best a feeble attempt, for nature wins every time. (So much for Andrew Lester’s “Floating Mesa” “whimsically defying nature.”) Even in a figurative sense, the example of steel banding a mesa top (both Shaw and Lester, using similar ideologies) cannot live up to being “not an object as much as a guide to seeing” (Strada, from the slide/tape). These large-scale sculptural projects, by attempting to compete with an even larger scale (by infinite and incalculable factors) environment, are odd homage to source and resource. The seminal “Cadillac Ranch” on Stanley March’s Amarillo property, a 1974 Ant Farm project, commissioned by Marsh, is the exception to the opinions states herein, however. It is my assumption that everyone who reads this will have at least heard it; no false attempt at integration or modesty is evidenced when viewing ten Cadillacs planted on end, by now violated in all ways by aficionados and vandals alike. It is a statement, not an anti-statement; it is honest and will endure as such, without ripping off the land, or alarming those who encounter it. (Speaking of ripping off the land, the question most frequently asked this reviewer regarding James Surls’ carving of a thousand year old cypress tree has nothing to do with the finished piece. It is this: did he chop down a tree to make it?)
One interesting photo/other medium comparison lies in Mel Chin’s “North Jetty” drawing. It is a sentimental, arbitrary and therefore personal expression of the desire to speak a small universal truth as Frank Golkhe or Ansel Adams or Suzanne Bloom might offer. One either enters into its simple, captivating beauty or is left untouched. The strength of this kind of work lies in its unwavering, almost involuntary dedication to a universal idea. Al Souza juxtaposes little (4 x 5 inch) photographs with comparably-sized paintings, as counterpoints in form and color and volume. They are formal studies, the way one might remember a place to be on a strictly visceral level. Their relations are both complex and obvious, and draw on far greater resources than any landscape could offer.
Barbara Riley’s hallucinogenic style of hand-painting photographs resurrects the by now flatness of the combination. The utterly enthralling and beautiful “Energy Group I,” 1983, demonstrates an even balance between media, as well as an expertise in said medium and the psychology and phenomenological implications of color, Charles Schorre’s use of color, in tandem with photography and mesmerizing and inimitable quality of line, has a comparable impact, although on a subliminal, irrevocable level. The “Big Bend Series III,” 1985, an oil/pastel/photo (to name a few) collage does the landscape a great honor: it allows for the possibility of a gentle human integration, presence or lack thereof notwithstanding. Schorre’s work is the land, not a reaction to it, no prior agenda carried over. Earl Staley’s invocations, painting with acrylic, dirt, and glitter in a grand scale, causes a similar resounding in the viewer. The notion of packing up and wandering around the disproportionately large undeveloped areas of Texas (then as now) pervades the older photography, from Strand’s “Telephone Poles, Texas,” 1915 to Robert Frank’s “US 90 En Route to Del Rio,” 1956, as well as the more recent: what part of the country could be more vast and satisfying a place to disappear into and reemerge from, loaded and uninfluenced except by the purity of the experience? The FSA photographers came to document history; what began as a sociological study (whose influential traditions extend into such works as Garry Winogrand’s “Hippie Hollow, Lake Travis, Austin, Texas,” 1973, the inclusion of the female nude here the only departure) has endured as a body of art transcending genre and the expectations attached. Russell Lee’s “Round Up: Waggoner Ranch,” 19955, is another such transmigration from thematic to interpretive, documenting the demise of an old tradition and the instatement of a new: cattle round-ups using helicopters, science and efficiency replacing the cowboy. Arthur Rothstein’s vision of the panhandle, and Dorothea Lange’s record of the drought “Near Dalhart, Texas” are other examples of the standard set by a timeless intention applied to historical events. Both Geoff Winningham and Suzanne Bloom look to an altered land, comparing and contrasting ideas about grandiosity and reduction in nature, the former in an 1981 aerial image of the Houston Ship Channel (black and white), the latter in a 1979 image, “White Oak Bayou Series #9” (color). They are upon initial encounter, dispassionate and unrestricted, the scale of the subject matter’s force upon humanity and the evidence of man being the obvious distinctions. Yet both are controlled by man; both control man. In the same removed scheme of things does the incomparable E. O. Goldbeck record the events within his realm, here a baptism in a San Antonio Park Pool, a huge crowd in attendance. There is no substitute for this repository of sociological/humanistic information, and future generations are enormously indebted to Mr. Goldbeck for his attending to the details of ordinary life. Vernon Fisher’s “Running on Empty,” 1978, acrylic on paper, whose title perhaps refers to Jackson Browne’s anthem on loneliness, has an emotional similarity as a remotely powerful rendition. It incorporates a run-on text, a stream of consciousness discourse about empty gas tanks and radios (there is always the battery), and has the feel of a hand-painted photograph, the realism of the even carrying over as though it were an actual record, the real thing. It is what one would expect of an illustrated journal entry.
Some areas of the planet seem to exert more metaphysical influence on witnesses than others. Big Bend is one such area, its magnetism drawing the obligatory land-cruisers and the brace hikers, alike, in relatively measured numbers. Each artist here discovers Big Bend anew, transforming a vision, a function of its spatial outrageousness, its impossible, austere beauty, its unidentifiable otherworldliness. Ansel Adams’ image of Big Bend is stylized in his tradition, a sever reduction far more dedicated to his definition of beauty, by then a world-standard that art followers counted on. Casey Williams, rejecting any such notion or standards removes Adams’ anonymity of place, exploring instead the unique colors and organic icons in “Untitled, Big Bend,” 1984 (purple mountains looming in the background, man’s futile efforts at integration disappearing in the dry heat, that which remains such barely holding on, the sun-bleached plastic flowers that mean one thing only – death). The result, a hand-painted mural, is a far more personal interpretation whereas Adams transposed Big Bend in accordance with his vision, Big Bend forever altered Williams, and he is far richer for it.
Frank Gohle sets his own standard as well, that of immutable timelessness, in his static imagery of monolithic: he may as well be photographing dinosaurs in prehistoric times. This consistent unification is comforting, and it offers to the viewer a position regarding the world that is threat-free, unequivocally filtered. Laura Gilpin, whose work in portraiture is extreme and potent, is poorly represented here, her “Palm Avenue,” 1947, little more than a notation made at arm’s length.
Perhaps the most provocative line of questioning is inspired by the comparison of certain images, such as Danny Lyons’ “Cotton Pickers, Ferguson Unit, Texas,” 1967-69 (of black prisoners) and Lewis Hines’ “Cotton Pickers near McKinney, Texas, October, 1913” (of whites in the field, presumably free). Another pair, Carl Mydan’s “Loungers Hang Around the Duval Club Lunchroom in Freer, Texas,” 1937, and Lee Friedlander’s “Texas, 1965” characterize the ideal of the West, and its logical evolution, from muddy streets and muddier boots to cafes with electric stars, cactus domesticated in futile gesture of control, his shadow as a marker of time and intention. Oddly, the other Friedlander image included (“Untitled, 1977”) is very painterly in spirit, a discovery in the style of Adams. The physical comparison between Mary Peck’s circuit camera photograph, “Near Amarillo, Texas,” 1984, and Julie Bozzi’s similarly long and narrow oil on paper, is startling and joyous. Peck’s huge, empty spaces, a train running parallel to the horizon line, finds its abstracted mirror opposite in Bozzi’s work.
The homage to found-in-nature iconography and altarpiece, in the work of Madeleine O’Connor, David McManaway, Michael Tracy, and Guy Johnson, is peculiar and stunted, the removal and installation or reproduction of the organize serving to invalidate it. All the abovementioned artists call upon every trick in the pack-rat and junk-art collector’s book, from stereo cards (subsequently hand-colored) to snake skeletons and the like. Herein lie the most demonstrable theatrics, with sculpture running a close second. Regarding clichés, who might be the worse offender? Would the art with the most bluebonnets win? The chief here, by far, is sculpture, though much of the work is guilty. Demonstrations of cliché in painting and photography are found in uniform peacefulness, as implausible as if all the chaos of, say, Earl Staley, were to dominate instead.
One wonders about an implied landscape, when thinking about Robert Lever’s four men in suits, with their various peculiar posturing, or Staley’s demons of the desert, in “Temptation of St. Anthony,” 1977/85. One imagines Staley to have eyes on the inside, far more functional than the ones that operate outside, just as one is certain that he is able to paint his thoughts and dreams and terrors directly, without the filter or intervention of consciousness. But the landscape is an internal one, just as Lee N. Smith Ill’s “Against all Undertoads” (John Irving, another pop phenomenon recalled) is a psychoscape in the form of acting-out, a wonderfully-colored painting of a kid at the lake, all the work fears about what one images to lurk in the muddy waters below coming true without his knowing. This innocence characterizes much of the work across an uneven grouping, laboring to unite under two unrelated and disparate banners – the landscape and the sesquicentennial.