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The P-Word


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:15 pm

I recently attended a panel discussion at Cooper Union, organized by the New Museum. Titled “Location, Location, Location! Is Provincial a Bad Word?,” it was billed as addressing the “rise in importance of regional culture in the wake of global culture.” Those of you familiar with this column will recognize something of a hobbyhorse of mine embedded in this topic, so I was quite keen to hear what some of the smartest minds assembled in the art world’s ostensible capital had to say about it.

The whole thing was an utter disappointment, I’ve got to say. While there were glimmers from time to time of ideas connected to the subject, most of the presentations concerned pet projects or mindless, meaningless speculation about things that sounded relevant (but were not); not one of the eminent speakers assembled ever really dealt with the question of the provincial, provincialism, or anything close. By the end of the evening, it was clear to me that this well-connected brain trust was operating in its own weird vacuum, a feeling I’ve had more than once in recent years when encountering what might be badly described as the art world “mafia”—the establishment that organizes all the big international exhibitions, writes in the big art magazines, and helps to stratify the elite end of the art market. (Even the delicious irony of the panel’s title, referring to the oldest joke ever about real estate, seemed largely lost in its application to the speculative nature of the big money feeding the exclusivity of the art market itself.)

Using Harry Shearer’s apt term, the “News from Outside the Bubble” presents a very different picture. There are many reasons—real estate being an important one—that many artists have chosen to move out of the city, gravitating to the naturally beautiful yet still culturally connected villages and rural spaces of the Hudson Valley. But of course this is a very different place than it was when Thomas Cole and his 19th-century confreres first came to paint here, and even from the early 20th-century heyday of the Woodstock arts colonies.

Back in the 1920s, the response among many American artists to the bold, formal, and often abstract innovations of the Europeans (think Picasso, Mondrian, et al.) was to reassert the importance of more traditional representation, in a movement known as American Scene painting. These works sprung from the socially concerned work of the Ashcan School, and eventually grew into the new, often politically conservative style of Regionalism, which rejected the suspect polyglot culture of the urban centers, in favor of representing something more purely “American.”

The artists working in and around Woodstock, for the most part, tended to pursue a variant of this sort of American Scene painting (although with more liberal politics, on the whole), and a number of excellent examples of this work from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s will be on view starting this month at the Woodstock Artists Association. “American Scenes: Images of Leisure and Entertainment” is the second installment in a series of exhibitions organized by the WAA, highlighting the representation of everyday American life by artists from the area.

“Provincial” is not quite the right word to describe the Woodstock artists of that era—then, as now, the connections to New York were too close, too accessible to be ignored. Many artists participated in the community here only during the summers, others shuttled back and forth to the city as they pleased. What they shared, for the most part, was a commitment to easily legible representation, rejecting the farther flung theories of abstract art, a bias that emerged in the 1930s as the style made popular by New Deal-sponsored public art (which is also on view this month in an excellent show of government sponsored mural art drawings, “For the People,” at Vassar College).

Works in the show range from Pele DeLappe’s mildly creepy print Coney Island, which depicts a disturbing, faux-Surrealist encounter between a buxom young woman and an otherworldly midget clown, to Julia Leaycraft’s cockle-warming painting Village in Winter, a bucolic view of Woodstock’s Village Green under a blanket of snow.

When I think of a provincial, it’s someone from the boondocks who simply doesn’t know better, whose taste was formed outside of the concentrated centers of culture—in short, something of a bumpkin. On those terms, the Woodstock artists were anything but provincial; it’s just that today, they are seen as being on the wrong side of history, backing the wrong horse in the art historical sweepstakes. (Interestingly, many of them changed their bets after World War II, and threw in with the formal experimentation of Abstract Expressionism.)

Today, in the full-blown era of globalization, the question of being provincial has changed fundamentally. How would you describe a provincial nowadays? Somebody without high-speed Internet?

That’s something we’ll all have to decide for ourselves, and there are plenty of opportunities this month to do just that. In conjunction with the historical show I’ve just discussed, WAA is opening a member show called “American Scenes,” which asks: What is it that makes us American? Just what is it that defines us as Americans today? And, what about art can connect to such a notion? It should be interesting to see what turns up in response.

A bit further south, Van Brunt Gallery in Beacon is presenting the latest installment in a series of exhibitions dedicated to what owner Carl Van Brunt likes to call the “New Hudson” movement, a group of some of the most talented artists in the region, working in sometimes very diverse styles—and not a single “provincial” in the lot. This show focuses on the seemingly simple question, “What is a landscape?” after considering the elisions between natural and human, placing us “right in the middle of the landscape we once contemplated from afar.” The show includes a variety of responses to this new reality, by artists as diverse as James Dustin, Portia Munson, Vincent Pomilio, Laura Moriarty, and Stephen Spacarelli.

Given the general cluelessness of the panel I witnessed at the Cooper Union, it seems to me that the real “p-word” we need to worry about now is parochialism, which takes hold when a centralized authority uses its power to exclude anything that does not align itself with the particular, narrowly-focused scope or outlook endorsed by that authority. Perhaps what we need today is a bit more provocation from the provinces, and a bit less pontification from the putative center.

Win Zibeon, _Back to Work,_ acrylic on canvas, 28.5” x 36”.
  • Win Zibeon, _Back to Work,_ acrylic on canvas, 28.5” x 36”.
Norm Magnusson, _America’s Seven Virtues, Number 1: We (Community) (detail)_, acrylic and birch on wood panel, 42” x49”.
  • Norm Magnusson, _America’s Seven Virtues, Number 1: We (Community) (detail)_, acrylic and birch on wood panel, 42” x49”.

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