Sunday, August 14, 2011

To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through September 5, 2011

I wasn't terrible excited about seeing this show; I had the idea it would be depressing and uninteresting. I'm happy to report that I was wrong, and that I quite enjoyed my visit.

George Ault, an artist with whom I was unfamiliar prior to seeing this exhibit, moved from Manhattan to Woodstock, NY in 1937, in part to get away from an increasingly troubling world and to bring some sense of order to the chaos that was taking over. When I read this, I was reminded of a woman with whom I used to work, who left DC and moved to Vermont after 9/11, feeling a need for greater security. It's not a choice I have made in my life, but I understand the impulse.

The show features Ault's work, along with pieces by several of his contemporaries. One, Flag Station, by Harry Leith-Ross, has a quote from Alistair Cooke in its description, extolling the "rare beauty of stasis." I've often felt that the normal day, where nothing much happens, is a marvelous thing, and vastly underrated by those who seek constant stimulation. Nothing like a little boredom to help you re-charge your batteries to deal with whatever life will thrown at you next.

Ault was described as a poet of empty places, and the paintings of Russell's Corners, including the piece pictured above, show the same scene, devoid of people. Daylight at Russell's Corners is a wonderful winter tableau - you can feel the cold as you look at it.

I also admired his Brook in the Mountains. You can see the great power of the water flowing , but it is controlled. The note next to the piece indicates that this is meant to show the value Ault placed on emotional control, and regardless of whether that's true or not, it make me wonder if the ability to keep a cool head and not shout out one's every thought is valued in American society any longer. Having just watched a couple of the Sunday talk shows, I'm inclined to think not.

One of the exhibition notes puts forward the idea that Ault told no stories in his art. Is that really true? Granted, you don't have the story laid out for you - it's not as if you've got a scene of people interacting in some way, or some picture of a historical event, but I think that just provides more room for the viewer to create his or her own story.

Verdict: Despite my misgivings, I enjoyed this show. It's large, but not so large that you can't see it in a lunch hour.

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