LANDSCAPE AS LENS
While landscapes are commonly admired as beautiful views of natural scenery, they are often imbued with hidden messages, revealing symbols related to cultural contexts, societal commentary, or an artist’s personal view of the world. This symbolism can be seen in many of the paintings in Mediterranea: American Art from the Graham D. Williford Collection and is also evident in artworks from the Hunter’s collection.
Robert Seldon Duncanson
Robert Duncanson was one of the most successful African American artists in the 19th century. While many of the surrounding paintings in this gallery showcase recognizable scenes throughout the United States, this particular painting presents an improbable mix of mountain, trees, and waterways. Duncanson never clarified the meaning of this work, but it can be explored in the context of his life and times. As a Black man living in antebellum Cincinnati, just across the river from slave-holding Kentucky, Duncanson was perhaps referencing a body of water as a physical barrier between enslavement and emancipation. The mysterious blend of landforms, the still waters and untouched beach, and the castellated mountain in the distance could be further interpreted as abolitionist symbols also found in abolitionist speeches that mention these landscape metaphors as visions of a New Jerusalem.
This artwork has flashing lights.
Manifest Destiny was a 19th century belief that European-American colonizers were entitled to inhabit the full landmass currently known as the United States and was used by politicians and artists alike as a justification for land expansion and displacement of indigenous peoples living on those lands. Some artists used the metaphor of heavenly light to subtly reinforce this concept of a providential blessing being placed on American land. This painting also brings this trope to a religious realm as the setting sun shines light primarily on the San Antonio church while the people who had long lived on this land are cast in shadows close to the ground.
Martin Johnson Heade
While many artists of his day painted landscapes celebrating the varied natural wonders of North America, Heade created many works drawing attention to the birds and foliage of South America. This work was part of Heade’s hummingbird series created during his years in Brazil, where he studied the wonders of the rainforests. Unlike other artists, Heade painted these works from life and depicted each bird within its natural habitat, noting the relationship between the bird and the flower.
This work was painted during Kent’s 1920s sojourn in Gleann Locha, Ireland, a remote town that was his inspiration. Over the following decades, Kent became increasingly involved in labor activism and developed a relationship with the Soviet Union, which led to teh revocation of his passport when Senator Joseph McCarthy blacklisted American citizens for suspected communist sympathies. When he was no longer able to travel, Kent looked to images like this with greater nostalgia.
Under the Sun
Inspired by items he has collected over the years and centuries-old celestial maps, Saftel creates works as a reflection on humankind’s place in the universe. This particular landscape explores the impact on the environment caused by an increase in our carbon footprint. Saftel potrays the devastating effect of climate change in the shifting tides and destruction of waterways and species living within them. With the escalating environmental challenges we are all experiencing today, the painting, created 15 years ago, holds an even greater resonance.
Mesocosm (Times Square)
Marina Zurkow researches what she calls “wicked problems,” like invasive species, superfund sites, and petroleum interdependence. She uses humor to present works that focus on the intersections and tensions between nature and culture. This video installation presents three views of New York City’s Times Square. On the left screen, we see plants and animals living on this land prior to human intervention, and on the middle, we see the present day with humans and technology pervading all. The right panel depicts the destruction caused by the human impact on the land, while leftover bits and pieces from pop culture dart through the scene. Like Martin Johnson Heade 150 years before, Zurkow brings scientific understanding and observation to her work. Like Andrew Saftel, Zurkow infuses her work with elements of popular culture, bringing her signature humor as well as a connection to viewers’ lived experiences.
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