A sense of place

Different strokes

A sense of place

‘The Artist as Native: Reinventing Regionalism’ (Chameleon books, Inc./1993) by Alan Gussow (1931-1997) is a book about artists and the images they paint; it is also about a new kind of regionalism, a way of looking at and responding to the land the artists reside in.

Besides individual paintings, the book contains personal statements by each of the 53 artists; they provide an interesting insight into the inspirations, influences, concerns and the creative processes involved in making of an artwork.

Gussow was himself an accomplished American artist with several solo shows to his credit during his lifetime. As the youngest winner of the Prix de Rome in Painting in 1953, he went to Italy for two years on a fellowship. When he returned, he developed a passion for painting landscapes which he carried throughout his life. 
 
A trip to Australia in 1980 brought him face to face with aboriginal art and turned out to be a turning point in his life. He was struck by the fact that primitive art was rarely made for admiration; that it was always in the service of spirits and the culture; and that it played a pivotal role in insuring continuity of the group, the birth of new members, the teaching of the young, the transfer of power from one generation to another and the peaceful departure of the souls of the dead.

The experience was so intense that Gussow at once disengaged himself from his New York gallery, because he no longer wished to think of his art as a commodity. He became disillusioned with most western art, “dissatisfied with what I took to be its intentions as well as its outcome. I wanted to make art which functioned at the center of human life, not at its edges.” 

Gussow went on to organise a series of art and anti-nuclear actions and became an influential and revered figure for espousing the cause of art and conservation. He advocated that there should be artists in residence in parks, “just as there are poets and writers in residence at universities.”

Author of many important books, including A Sense of Place: The Artist and the American Land (1972), which collated the art and words of a wide selection of American landscape painters from the 16th to 20th centuries, Gussow firmly believed that one cannot be mere spectators to art and life — rather we coexist with both. When he succumbed to cancer in 1997, he was 65.

The Artist as Native provides interesting views, observations, experiences and aspirations of 53 featured artists. “None of them burden their paintings with the need to carry a message,” observes Gussow, in the foreword. “The only weapon they possess to express rage against environmental destruction is their ability to make visible what they experience and what they value.”

The book reveals how cultural experiences and artistic practices varied among artists. In her statement, Candida Alavarez (New Haven, Connecticut) discloses that her work is an attempt at synthesising experience; an attempt at bridging a gap between the familiar and the mysterious. For Ben Frank Moss — a native of Lyme, New Hampshire — even a distant memory of a physical setting becomes a metaphor for a personal truth. “At its best the final statement conveys a distilled sensation of time.”

David F Utiger, a resident of Peru, Vermont, would like to think of his art as an attempt to fight back against an increasingly mass-marketed, mass-produced and banal world, while Sharon Yates (Lubec, Maine), a restless researcher, does not believe in ‘rearranging fate.’ For her, there were no bouquets in vases; no foreground, middleground, or background, and no cubism; her motivation came from hearing, seeing and smelling the sea, digging the easel into the grass and feeling the freedom of getting out in the air.  
Some revelations by artists make interesting read. Catherine Redmond (New York, New York), for instance, confides that she likes the song of the garbage trucks at five in the morning! She also likes the sound of the apricot-brown mourning dove on the kitchen ledge. “We are all in this together,” she says. “I prefer the world as I find it, the world which is not dressed up and on its best behaviour, but as it is on a Wednesday morning going about its business and unaware of itself.  Here there is extraordinary beauty.”    
Joseph Oddo (Oakland, California) too finds his subjects coming from day-to-day experiences — the ordinariness of the city streets, and the people he sees every day. Similarly, the visual experience of observing families working together in the field is a source of inspiration for Jonathan Green (Naples, Florida). He is acutely attuned to the daily life of the rural community and the rhythm of routines that require an innate sense of timing.
 
Being native is a perpetually compelling task for David Coughtry (Middleburgh, New York), while Tom Nelson (Albany, New York) feels appreciating environment is a learned experience; he is attracted to areas that have been altered, violated; for him, to be in nature, to be studying it, is as important as the act of painting itself.
Benito Huerta (Houston, Texas)’s work is about the environment and what we, the human race, are doing to it.  “The heart is our world and the world is our heart. What we do the earth we do unto ourselves.”

Perhaps the most evocative comments come from Joanna Osburn-Bigfeather, a Cherokee-Mescalero Apache, whose varied experiences as an American Indian includes confronting racism and ignorance. In her eyes the Statue of Liberty is not a symbol of liberation but one of accumulation and bondage. “My work serves as a metaphor for tribal people in their own home land and the feeling of not fitting into the landscape of ‘American’ society… My work is about trying to reestablish native people’s history in the North American landscape, to rewrite our history in a visual sense and to take control of the Native American image by someone who is native…It is only through our own eyes and sense of place that we will truly be rendered as real people.”

 

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