Friday, December 3, 2010
Landscape and Roadside Vernacular
“Landscape could be seen as the first cognitive encounter with a place.”(1) – W.J.T. Mitchell
The tradition of landscape within the context of roadside vernacular is one that interests me and appears in my work as a painter. I am going to explore the concept of landscape and how that plays out within the genre of roadside vernacular. By roadside vernacular I am referring to a visual language that includes signage, architecture, roads and other various stimuli. In order to understand the specificity of roadside one must look at the notion of landscape first. I will be looking to photography and painting with the hope of having a discussion about the philosophical notion on the tradition of landscape with regard to nature, memory and loss.
The term landscape is a reflection on land-based forms in nature, which include all elements of land and water formations, rivers, lakes, mountains, deserts, oceans and all of the natural vegetation and living creatures that exist within these elements. Additionally, landscape can be looked at as a cultural overlay of man’s footprint onto the earth, which includes the visual evidence of man’s presence within the landscape. It is within the examination and exploration of the cultural overlay where roadside vernacular exists and where the idea of public and private space, regionalism and sense of place, along with memory and loss reside.
Part of the equation of understanding landscape is to look at the complexity that exists in the act of simply viewing. It may be important to define the role of the artist and the viewer as separate yet similar, and not that dissimilar to that of looking at a natural vista verses a work of art. In the book Landscape and Power, W.J.T. Mitchell discusses the dilemma that exists in understanding the conceptual bases and process of navigating the term landscape,
“The vernacular expression suggests that the invitation to look at landscape is an invitation not to look at any specific thing, but to ignore all particulars in favor of an appreciation of a total gestalt, a vista or scene that may be dominated by some specific feature, but is not simply reducible to the feature.” (2)
To further develop or understand the idea of landscape it is important to address the convergence used to construct landscape as a “dialectical triad, a conceptual structure that may be activated from several different angles” of “space, place, and landscape.”(3) The idea of place can be defined as a specific place or geographic location, or as “a notion of place as the location of the Lacanian Real, the site of trauma or historical event.” (4) Seeing place this way is to think of the landscape as a “memorial or monument erected to mark a place.”(5) In looking at space one can arrive at the notion of space in several ways, one as a “holy space”(6) , or as a “human space” (7) which can be symbolic of a sacred or holy event.
Now, I would like to move on and look at specific works of what I am calling roadside vernacular with the final intent of comparing two works, Edward Ruscha’s, Twenty Six Gasoline Stations, and David Hockney’s, Pearblossom Hwy. The first painting I would like to reference is by Dutch painter Simon de Vlieger, Landscape with Haymakers at the Left, about 1640 - 1653 [Fig. 1]. The medium is black chalk with grey wash. I use this as an example because while the painting is of the natural landscape, it clearly references the road as the main avenue by which the viewer’s eyes are led to the distant grove of trees. Interestingly de Vlieger was mostly a marine painter whose limited pallet is carried over into this landscape as well. The next painting I have chosen is by French painter Camille Pissarro, Louveciennes, Route de Saint-Germain, 1871 [Fig. 2]. This watercolor over black chalk with the muted pallet and atmospheric sky primarily depicts the particular season and the approach of winter. Pissarro has painted into the painting a reference to man by painting a small carriage at the center of the horizon line. These two paintings provide an excellent example of painting the vista without focusing on the particular but capturing instead more of the overall feeling of the environment. Additionally, although painted more than 200 years apart each convey a similar visual statement.
For the next two examples I have chosen two photographs, Fontainebleau, 1856 by Gustave Le Gray [Fig. 3] and The Road West / Highway to the West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, negative 1938, print 1965 by Dorothea Lange [Fig. 4]. “Though Gustave Le Gray was trained as a painter, he made his mark in the emerging medium of photography.”(8) Dorothea Lange was most known for her work in photography when she began to work for the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) in 1953. “During this period, she made her most famous image, Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother), of Native American Florence Owens Thompson and her children in a pea-pickers' camp.” (9) Both of these photographs depict the expansiveness of the roadway with no particular destination at the horizon line. Each communicates a strong and striking bareness of the landscape, all the while portraying man’s existence but without a direct indication of man other than the road itself.
Edward Ruscha and David Hockney, each known primarily as painters, have used various media in their exploration as artist and thinkers. Each artist emerged under the umbrella of Pop Art, which was directly influenced by popular culture and post war consumerism driven by mass media advertising. Each artist was a transplant to the Los Angeles area - Ruscha coming from Oklahoma and Hockney arriving from England - each arriving approximately around the same period of time. It was during Ruscha’s many long trips back to Oklahoma that he began taking photographs of US Route 66, which spanned between Chicago and Santa Monica. Much like Duchamp, Ruscha’s fascination is with the ready-made and the conceptual aspect of the “sleek interstates freeways and on – and - off ramps.” (10) “I had a vision that I was being a great reporter when I did the gas stations” (9). When Ruscha photographed the many gas stations his perception was much like Walker Evans and what he called the “frontal view” and portrayed what he called “roadside reality”(11) or “manufactured reality.” (12) 26 Gasoline Stations, [Fig. 5] is a conceptual piece and one of the many books Ruscha has completed during his career.
Pearblossom Hwy, [Fig. 6] is a photo collage, which Hockney called "joiners”. In this photo collage he constructs a fully imagined “roadside reality”(13) . He, like Evans, Lang, Ruscha and Le Gray, has used photography as his medium, and through his use of “Polaroid prints and later of 35mm commercially processed color prints” , he has developed a fully imagined reality, which differs from Evans and Ruscha’s reality based on architecturally altered landscape. In so doing he transforms his work into a hyper imagined reality. Hockney, too, has taken the full frontal perspective where there appears no perceivable destination waiting on the horizon. Hockney when describing his intent,
“I’ve no doubt that those photographs I took will make people look at everything in a more interesting way—the little tear on one piece of paper, the shadow on another. But good painting has always done that—made you see things. And the most ordinary can be the most extraordinary.”(14)
It can clearly be stated that the landscape tradition of roadside vernacular is a well-established tradition. For me the ultimate mystery or paradox is in the changing typography of the landscape and where new meanings develop almost daily with technology. It is Hockney’s theatricality and his highly developed portrayal that is the most interesting characteristic and might be conceived as the most conceptual. In our daily lives as we face our computer screen, iPad, large high tech sound and supersized projection systems along with developing social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and the like, that we experience a new lived and embodied tradition of landscape, nature, memory and sense of place.
Dorothea Lange, The Road West / Highway to the West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico,
American, negative 1938, print 1965, Gelatin silver print, 7 3/8 x 9 3/8 in.
David Hockney, Pearblossom Hwy., 11 - 18th April 1986, #2,
Chromogenic prints mounted on paper honeycomb panel
78 x 111 in.
(1) W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, 1994, 2002, p. vii.
(2) W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, 1994, 2002, p. vii.
(3) W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, 1994, 2002, p. xi.
(4) W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, 1994, 2002, p. xi.
(5) W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, 1994, 2002, p. xi.
(6) Getty Museum, http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=68430&handle=li
(7) Getty Museum, http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=140761&handle=li
(8) Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, Phaidon Press Limited, 2003, p 58
(9) Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, Phaidon Press Limited, 2003, p 58
(10) Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, Phaidon Press Limited, 2003, p 9
(11) Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, Phaidon Press Limited, 2003, p 9
(12) Getty Museum, http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=112574&handle=li
(13) Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, Phaidon Press Limited, 2003, p 9
(14) Getty Museum, http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=112574&handle=li
W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, 1994, 2002
Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, Phaidon Press Limited, 2003