November 29, 2010

A National Identity

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Many people leave the Museum of Modern Art in New York City fantasizing about art collecting, but mere dreaming was not enough for Gil Williams. After seeing The Family of Man exhibition, curated by Edward Steichen, in 1955, Williams embarked on what turned out to be an incredible life-time passion for art. Beginning with three prints he purchased for two dollars each during his sophomore year of college at SUNY Albany, his collection steadily grew to include works from many representative WPA artists, various 20th century experimental American printmakers, as well as some works from 19th century masters such as Frederic S. Church. His current exhibition at the Johnson Museum, appropriately titled American Eyes, showcases a dazzling selection of extremely diverse works of mostly graphic art that depict American life in the first half of the 20th century from a genuinely American point of view.    Nothing in the exhibition appears overly flashy, colorful or large; instead, the 100 or so prints work together to portray a mosaic of American life. The subject matter is always simple and honest: railways, subways, country barns, factories and people on the go — everyday Americans attending to everyday activities. Most of the artists will probably not be recognized by people who have not studied art history formally, yet this unfamiliarity oddly make the works feel more authentic and relatable. There were no long paragraphs on the labels of each piece to describe its significance in art history; the images themselves were enough to tell their story. In the postmodern era of intense, oftentimes extreme, formal innovations, these prints find an expressive, emotional, slightly abstract yet still representational stylistic niche, showcasing mastery of 20th century trends and techniques without losing realism’s commitment to depict the sentiments of human life under socioeconomic changes. The art reflects, captures, illuminates and records the American experience.Around the dawn of the 20th century, art education in America began to gradually shift from a European-based style to one that is identified as truly American. As art supplies and teachers became more widely available, art appreciation soared in everyday America. Even children began to be taught how to draw properly, and many stylistic innovations happened simultaneously to represent the ever-evolving America. Deborah Haylor’s etching “Impending Trouble” is a panoramic view of the countryside at night, where the tall reeds dance like ghosts in the wind in serpentine motion that mimics the growth of the old oak tree and the ephemeral tails of the shooting stars. The solid pitch dark sky hovers over a delicate, flimsy prairie that is ominous in its own right, threatening to descend any moment and crush what is left of its liveliness. Although noticeably influenced by Romantic and Gothic ideals of nature as well as German Expressionist prints, the juxtaposition of the styles, theme and execution is unprecedented. The drama created by the use of black and white forms an interesting relationship with the almost folk-art like attention to stylized details, culminating in a refreshing and engaging visual experience.In addition to nature, modern industry is also a common motif. Pieces such as Jesse. F. Reed’s A Modern Coal Plant depict the benefits, horrors and uncertainties that came with the industrial age. In this piece, a coal plant sits tucked into what seems to be a small hill. The river that flows in front of the plant is black and the buildings themselves are mostly dark save a few spots of light to create the illusion of three-dimensionality. It’s difficult, and probably unnecessary, to tell whether the suffocating darkness comes from the smothered coal or the natural lighting.Most of the collection, however, is devoted to the American people. The first half of the 20th century was plagued with war, the recession and their respective aftermaths. These paintings showcase everything from grief, frustration and confusion to bliss and optimism, all of which translate to vivid, tangible nostalgia for a bygone era. The collection’s wide range of styles coexist surprisingly harmoniously as the human subject proves enough to tie them together. Richard Pantell’s “Stereo” shows two men playing a saxphone and a guitar in a subway station, depicted in a frenzy of reds and strong, black outlines. The trains and the station are slightly distorted in a dreamlike manner, as if the motion and force of the trains created an atmosphere where the station and the men are also moving. Harbour Scene by George Elmer Browne is a rather atypical harbour scene that depicts men emerging out of a murky boat rather aimlessly into a land that is empty except for a few dim suggestions of poles and sails, a lonely and deserted scene of economic struggles. Minna Citron’s “Dress Circle, Carnegie Hall,” on the other hand, is a satirical lithograph of class struggle that is reminiscent of the works of Hogarth, but the post-impressionist composition as well as interpretation of social norms and hierarchies makes it uniquely American.

Original Author: Lucy Li