Landscape show misses forest for trees Exhibit of American photographs lacks coherence and boldness

March 22, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Washington -- The title should be enough to warn the wary away. "Between Home and Heaven" manages to be both pretentious and sentimental, and an exhibit of really good "Contemporary American Landscape Photography" would merit better. Unfortunately, this one, at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, deserves just what it gets.

The idea behind it wasn't bad. Several years ago the NMAA set out to amass a collection of American landscape photography, with the support of the Consolidated Natural Gas Company Foundation, and over four years photography curator Merry Foresta selected more than 300 images from about 50 photographers. For the collection's public debut she selected 131.

Certainly there were good reasons for such a project. If one were to choose one subject as most typical of American art, it would surely be landscape. From the days of the Hudson River School to Winslow Homer, from impressionism to abstraction to David Hockney's recent "Pearblos som Hwy" (which, by the way, should be in this show but isn't), the American landscape has had a powerful, at times mystical, hold on the imagination of artists.

It has represented the beneficence of God, the dream of empire, or "compensation for our lack of ancient cultures and classical heroes" as NMAA director Elizabeth Broun says in her catalog preface. More recently, the depiction of landscape has often reflected our sorrow, guilt and anger over what we have done and are doing to this precious heritage: urbanized it -- worse, suburbanized it, mauled (as inmalled) it, raped it, polluted it, trashed it.

A fine, a wonderful, a great exhibit might have been assembled around the subject of landscape. Though what we get instead is not devoid of interesting images, what it adds up to is just plain dull. There are three major problems with it.

First, there doesn't seem to have been any organizing principle. The show could have been divided up aesthetically, or by subject matter, or perhaps some other way. But everything has been more or less thrown together, so that one doesn't have any coherent idea of what this show -- or collection -- is all about.

The catalog is no better. We careen from the lovely field and sky of Terry Evans' "Fairy Ring #2" to Richard Misrach's arid and littered scene "Bomb, Destroyed Vehicle and Lone Rock" to Gus Foster's panorama "Cut Wheat" to a group of works by Peter Goin and David T. Hanson showing various kinds of pollution to shots of bridges by Stuart D. Klipper and Allen Hess to a town nestled in the Colorado mountains by Robert Dawson to Barbara Bosworth's delicate "Niagara Falls." Most if not all of these have to do with man's interaction with the land in one way or another, good and bad, but the way they're presented doesn't add up to anything.

Second, the written material is extremely poor. The exhibit begins with an introductory text full of not very meaningful generalities such as, "In an ecological age when the meaning of landscape is largely effected by the culture that inhabits the camera's geological subject, photography is again employed in a serious attempt to realize a new aesthetic in nature." Beyond that, there is little to guide the visitor through this confusing succession of images.

Again, the catalog is no better. It contains three essays, including one by Foresta, but they only further confuse matters. These writers don't seem to know how to separate and classify the photographic material they're dealing with in any helpful way. In her essay, Foresta cites the book "Landscape as Photograph," in which "Estelle Jussim and Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock isolated eight different approaches -- from artistic, genre and pure form to politics and propaganda." Maybe Foresta should simply have appropriated those categories, or maybe the material here isn't organizable that way, or maybe it just isn't organizable.

PD Finally, the images themselves are so boring. One can't say that

about all of them individually -- there are some beautiful works here, some effective ones, some affecting ones -- but collectively they fall flat. They're like a group of people who have been brought together because they all have red hair but nothing else in common. They don't have anything to say.

Above all, there's an aura of timidity about this collection; it looks as if it was put together with an almost fanatic determination not to have either a consistent aesthetic or a point of view. As a result, it's simply flabby.


John Singer Sargent's "El Jaleo" (1882), his first major success, a great big (8 feet by 11 feet) painting showing a Spanish flamenco dancer on a shallow stage with musicians behind her. Marked by dynamic brushwork and dramatic lighting, especially on the dancer's white skirt, it's a tour de force. It's not profound, but it's bold and thrilling and fun.

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