On the Dominant Divide: American Landscapes from John Philip Falter to Barbara Kruger
This online exclusive exhibition explores the American landscape as a genre from different perspectives including movements, theories, time, and place – drawing from artwork available across our five gallery locations. Not merely aesthetically pleasing paintings of the outdoors, the landscape of America becomes a lens through which we can understand its complex geographic, cultural, social, and political identity. The exhibition’s title takes inspiration from the third movement of American composer John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music. With its allusion to geography, Adams describes his piece “with its flag-waving, gaudy tune rocking back forth” as a “Whitmanesque yawp”. His description also encapsulates the exhibition. Its sonic language is a perfect complement to the show and provides another layer of understanding the visual language constructed by these disparate artists to describe America.
The subtitle of the exhibition also references the variety of artists who have tackled the genre, to the myriad ways of seeing, and to the many facets of the gemstone that is America. It is only by lining up the Americana of Falter or the impressionism of John Joseph Enneking against the narrative question of Kruger or materiality of Rodney McMillian to see the complexity of landscape as a genre and America as a nation. The exhibition explores the divide in the sense of a geological canyon and in the multiplicity of understanding and seeing. Is the ocean beach a pleasant awayday as in Mabel May Woodward’s Beach Scene or is it the frosty coldness of George Gardner Symons’ White River Bank? Is America composed of land and architecture in the realism of Davis Cone or is it the people and where they come from in the interpretation of Felandus Thames? There is no one correct answer but rather multivalent ones. By juxtaposing opposing works and artists, the exhibition aims to capture the spirit of America and asks us to think deeper and more openly about landscapes and the nation.
Highlights of the exhibition include:
Spring Light, 1969, by John Philip Falter is a pastoral example of his work that helped develop the visual language of Americana. Like Norman Rockwell, Falter created over 120 covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Painted during the turbulent 1960s, this painting represents his vision, he said, “to record what is probably the last of the great tradition of farming.” Painted in the same decade is Barn Group Near Marion, 1960, by Marvin Cone which presents a similar scene from a slightly different perspective of American Regionalism. The painting is not so much an exact record but an evocation of Cone’s interpretation of time and place.
ME, 1972, by Robert Cottingham is from a series of work in which Cottingham isolated parts of words from theater signs. This painting pulls from the Cameo Theatre on South Broadway in Los Angeles. The work was created a few years before Tom Wolfe’s famous essay, “The ‘Me’ Decade”, was published as the cover story in New York magazine on August 23, 1976. Fremont with Two Girls, 2006, by Davis Cone traffics in the same realism and subject matter but in pulling back the visual scope, his work is a more ambiguous exploration of the American landscape and culture.
Flag, 2002, by Rodney McMillian suggests a map or landscape. McMillian describes his work as exploring the history of struggle and power latent in landscape painting. What does a flag represent? Who owns the land and at what cost? The enormity of the pieces creates an awareness in the viewer of their own body in relation to it. The “post-consumer item” of the suit and sheets further emphasizes the corporeal, particularly of black bodies, adding a feeling of loss and of home. Mining similar issues of black identity and America is Gamtoos River by Felandus Thames. The river to which the title refers is one in South Africa, and in depicting the African American lips, Thames suggests a deeper connection between geography and identity as well as re-examining depictions of African Americans in art history.
Luncheon, 1961, by Roland Petersen presents a wholly different movement and style than the contemporaneous paintings of Falter and Cone. The thick impasto and vibrant colors incites a delicious pleasure that delights the eye. In the combination of paintings from similar eras, the viewer is able to see the push and pull of America.
Spring, 1916, by William Wendt is a thoughtful example of Wendt’s impressionistic style that captured the landscape of Southern California. German-born and moving to the U.S., his story speaks to the country as a land of immigrants. Fellow German-born artist and California transplant, Eugen Neuhaus said of Wendt that “he sings of spring in its rich greens and more often of the joyful quality of summer in typical tawny browns, in decorative broad terms.” Wend’ts friend and fellow California transplant, George Gardner Symons and his White River Bank accompanies the painting, providing a sharp seasonal contrast and a different approach to American Impressionism. Other American Impressionist works in the exhibition include Milton Blue Hills by John Joseph Enneking and Rocky Pasture by Edward Potthast. Beach Scene by Mabel May Woodward epitomizes her work in American Impressionism with its sun-dappled, light-filled canvas and the scenes she would have been familiar with in her home state of Rhode Island.
Picture/Readings, 1978, by Barbara Kruger juxtaposes text and image to focus on narrative, reality, and architecture. The photographs are of buildings in Florida and California, highlighting details that would normally go unnoticed. Kruger combines the image with fictive narratives of passersby and inhabitants, complicating the received knowledge of stories and landscapes. Kruger notes, “Picture/Readings was an early indicator of my interest in exterior and interior spaces and how they form us as much as we form them.”
McD’s, 2003, by Brian Alfred is a post-modern painting that presents a symbol of American pop culture but also seemingly an ominous warning. Is the burning also a symbolic gesture or just an unfortunate moment he has captured in paint? More sublime in its coloring but no less hazy is Border Theory (Rio Grande/Zona Desolada), 2014, by Tony de los Reyes. De los Reyes has utilized the language of abstraction and color field to create meditations on the meaning of visual and geographic border. The oil and dye that have stained the canvas are not just an investigation of paint’s properties but a physical manifestation of border rivers.