Saturday, September 14, 2013

Landscapes in Passing: Photographs by Steve Fitch, Robbert Flick, and Elaine Mayes

Where: American Art Museum

When: through February 23, 2014

When one thinks of the American landscape, one generally thinks of dramatic natural beauty: the coastlines, the Rocky Mountains, the Mississippi River, the National Park System.  There is another American landscape, however, and this is what is on display in this interesting show now on at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum.

Rather than focusing on the purple mountains' majesty or the amber waves of grain, the artists featured here have concentrated on the man-made landscape, what you see out the car window as you travel down the interstate or make your way through town.  You'll never mistake these for one of Ansel Adams' prints, but they are none the less American for that.  Dare I say it, they are perhaps more American, as we've all seen the views on display in this show, but not all of us are fortunate enough to wander the forest primeval.

The photographs here were taken between 1971 and 1980 (not a time period that I associate with much beauty).  They are framed by car windows and regulated by the grid of city streets and the interstate highway system.  This is drive-through scenery, and there is nothing pristine about it.

Elaine Mayes took a cross-country trip from San Francisco to Amherst, Massachusetts and produced the pictures of "Autolandscapes" along the way. "Normally we experience our outdoor American environment by car," she's quoted as saying.  For better or worse, that's true enough.  Whenever the landscape changed, she took a picture with the car in motion.  The last photo is of a driveway, presumably the house in Amherst to which she was traveling.  There is a figure in the garage, walking out to meet her.  It seemed to me that this says something about the purpose of long journeys - we travel to see someone at the other end of the drive.

Steve Fitch's pictures are entitled "Diesels & Dinosaurs."  He photographs the creatures he encounters on his travels: roadside attractions with dinosaurs and snakes, monster trucks, even the Wigwam Motel in Arizona.  Some of his encounters are with real animals (apparently, there are any number of snake handlers that set up shop by the side of the road), others are with figures we've constructed for our own purposes.  All are part of the American landscape.  The show starts with a story Fitch relates, dealing with a disagreement between his father and his grandmother.  She thought they should take shelter from a lightning storm, while he was certain they'd be fine in his Buick.  Grandma insisted God could strike them dead, regardless of the car.  "Who was more powerful?" Fitch wondered, "Grandma's God or Dad's Buick?"  Yet another chapter in the endless contest of man versus nature.

Robbert Flick's "Sequential Views" is the result of a 1980 documentary survey of Los Angeles, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.  These photos approximate the way that one actually encounters the streetscape in everyday life - each block has a photograph; when you look at a grid of pictures, you feel as if you're driving down the street.  It reminded me of Google Street View, or a 1980 version of it.  These may not be the images one calls to mind when thinking of LA, but they are LA nonetheless.

Verdict: Good show, easily managed in an hour - well worth a look for a picture of the America that is perhaps less photogenic than the one most often pictured.

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