Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

14 May, 2007

Wisconsin's People on the Land

Yesterday The Dulcinea, her kids, and I went for a bit of Mother's Day music at the symphony. We arrived early to get some student discount seats and were left with some time to blow before the performance began. This gave us some time to check out the current exhibition at the James Watrous Gallery - "Wisconsin's People on the Land". It features the work of the following three artists.

David Lenz and his (mostly) photo-realistic paintings

Lenz's paintings (which you can see more of here) look like photographs until you move in close and witness the brushstrokes yourself. They portray a rural landscape with a traditional dairy farm belonging to Erv and Mercedes Wagner in Sauk County. The husband and wife are always in the foreground of the paintings with a field or lush valley behind them. And of course there are cows.

I wish I could recall the text accompanying Lenz's work but, alas, I cannot. I can, however, tell you what these paintings said to me. Firstly is the most obvious – rural Wisconsin is absolutely gorgeous. The renderings of the lush, verdant valleys are just incredibly beautiful. While we Cheeseheads may resent all the FIBs that clog the interstates during the summer, they at least have good taste. The second striking thing about the paintings was noticeable by its absence – kids. That it was just the Wagners, who look to be in their 60s, without anyone younger in these portraits spoke volumes to me. I kept asking myself, "Where are their children? Who will take over the farm when they can no longer work the land?" While I know neither the fate of that farm nor Lenz's intentions, I got the distinct impression that once, they retired, the farm was going to be history.

Madison photographer Tom Jones

Tom Jones is a fellow Madisonian and is of Ho-Chunk heritage. His photos capture his own family but also other members of the tribe. I recall photos of a man out picking tobacco and looking for herbs to use in traditional Native American medicine. In keeping with the theme of the exhibition, all the photos portrayed folks in relation to the land and so there were no glimpses of, say, a member of the tribe watching Oprah. Being about as pale as one can be and as about as far removed from Native American culture as I can be, these photos didn’t strike me close to home, as it were. It seems that the only time Native Americans are thought of here in Madison is when the Dejope bingo hall lobbies to become a full-fledged casino. The problem that I had was that, since I am so ignorant, my mind filled in all the blanks with bullshit.

If you're non-Native American and have little contact with such folk, what does that photo above draw into your mind? Did you have to fight off stereotypes of the American Indian as savage whether noble or not? Or perhaps that of a poor guy on the reservation drowning his sorrows with fire water? Personally, I found these photos to be a bit of a Rorschach test. I just couldn't take them for what they were and instead kept reading into them. Instead of a Freudian maze of genitalia and Oedipal complexes, I couldn't help but plugging the Noble Savage stereotype into my perceptions. We've gone from seeing Native Americans as savages to be killed by John Wayne to a more noble variation that lives in harmony with nature and sheds tears in PSAs. Whatever variety you choose, there's still this perception of them as being savages, of being "others". They live on reservations and we live in civil society.

I think it's because of these biases and stereotypes that I felt that the section with Jones' photos was incomplete. I kept wanting to see something more, some other aspect of Ho-Chunk life to complete the picture in my head so that I couldn't be accused of merely trafficking in stereotypes. But the exhibitions theme won out. As I moved on to the next set of photos, it was not how the Ho-Chunk lives in relation to the land that came most readily to my mind; instead it was my enormous ignorance.

Photographers Julie Shimon & John Lindemann from Manitowoc

Their photos were stark in their simplicity. These pictures featured dairy farmers who were much younger than the Wagners and many of them had non-traditional farms. If I recall correctly, the accompanying text mentioned the struggle to keep the farms competitive in the market. Simon and Lindemann's works were the last I looked at of the bunch. Curiously enough, I don't recall any of the photos actually portraying any of the farmers at work and I was a bit disappointed by this. I lived in rural Wisconsin for a bit over 3 years, though not on a farm. But many of my friends did live on farms and I got to help here and there. And so I lamented the lack of pictures showing just what milking cows three times a day, bailing hay, etc. is – back-breaking work. These people aren't just "on the land" – hell, we're all on the land – these people work the land. I just feel that showing farmers standing out in a field doesn't get across enough about their lives and their relation to the land. Heck, maybe the subjects of the photos I saw felt they were fine. But the farmers I've known felt that what they did was not only their vocation, but also their avocation and portraiture just isn't enough to convey that.

I walked out of the gallery thinking about those pictures hanging on the plain white walls. What would the well-heeled city slickers think of them? The grandeur of The Overture Center isn't exactly conducive to contemplating rural areas or the salt of the earth. Housed as they were in a building which bespeaks moneyed urban life, the exhibition stood out as sort of curiosity – a peek into another almost quaint world.

I once asked my friend Johnny, who is a Vietnam War vet, which Hollywood film best portrayed his experiences during the conflict. He mentioned Hamburger Hill and Platoon but he said there was one thing that no movie can ever capture – the smell. And the same goes for this exhibition. No matter how evocative those paintings and photographs were, they cannot convey the smell of a farm.

I don't mean to be overly-critical of the exhibition but I will say that, if you want to understand Wisconsin's people on the land, go live amongst them.
|| Palmer, 5:04 PM


Art brings us closer to things we otherwise wouldn't know *anything* about* - Tom Jones' photos were for the most part documentary - M was wholly unimpressed with one which showed a tree, some land - I had to tell him there was more than "pretty" to it. I think I would have liked a bit more depth to that portion of the show.

I agree with you that the space wasn't the best for the exhibit. In 'wrong' with the Overture. The James Watrous gallery is a pretty cold space and there isn't a lot of stepping-back room either. I'd love to see these in a room filled with natural light and warmer materials.

I thought they were so amazing. I'm a sucker for photo-realistic paintings anyhow. The way he found/applied light on the characters (particularly the way it played on Mercedes' hair and skin) was especially well done. I'd like to see these again with the gallery empty and more time to look.

The D.

*interesting observation about what your mind does with those blank spaces in your knowledge. That touches on some of the same themes as our discussion of images of Asians in film...
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