Our Good Earth:

The Landscape at the End of the Century

Ben Howell Davis

May-July, 1999

Hemphill Fine Arts

1027 33rd StreetNW

Washington, DC 20007

California, oil pastel on paper, 1985.

Red and Yellow Horizon, oil on board, 1988.

The exhibition Our Good Earth is a look at how contemporary artists are addressing the landscape at the end of the century and, through them, how we see ourselves in the land. The title for the show is drawn from a work by the great American regionalist painter John Steuart Curry. Painted in 1940, Curry's Our Good Earth, a masterpiece of its time, expresses a nearly religious belief in American heartland values. In support of the United States effort in WWII, Curry's painting was reproduced as a poster and re-titled Our Good Earth, Keep It Ours. Some sixty years later each word in Curry's original title carries equally charged, but changed meaning. It is artworks that show these changes, some subtle and others dramatic, that we sought to assemble for this exhibition.

The first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima only a few years after Curry completed Our Good Earth. No longer could the full impact of war be safely thought of as an isolated catastrophe between nations. Along with the colossal damage from an atomic blast came the drifting of fallout and the latent effects of radiation. Ultimately, it appeared that no one could be spared the effects of a nuclear war. The world-wide implications of the 1945 atomic bombing changed our view of the earth. Subsequently, the kinds of landscapes artists produce in the latter half of the twentieth century have changed.

Only a short five years after the bombing of Hiroshima, coaxial cables crisscrossed the United States. Every middle to large city skyline was decorated with broadcast antennae. These technical innovations made network television possible. And, through this network came a new kind of awareness. Any event with its supporting cast from any place could be immediately delivered into our homes in sound and moving pictures. As a result, we have become conscious of an ever-increasing number of incidents outside of our immediate communities. This new consciousness came with a necessary kind of emotional detachment. A single individual could not hope or be expected to have meaningful reciprocating relations with such a multitude of events, characters, or places. Conversely, the local and the personal could feel less significant if it went "unbroadcast", or in the least, unrecorded. With almost predictable regularity new technologies have appeared, each impacting society and the environment. Each of these technologies has altered our view of the landscape. Perhaps more than any other technology, television effects the way we look at people and places.

Many landscape artists have reacted against television's emotional detachment by creating paintings based upon an old fashioned kind of observation. Like their 19th century counterparts, they work within the actual landscapes they paint. However, their work can not help but evidence the formal traits of a world subconsciously re-seen through the mechanics of film and video. Other late 20th century artists see the world consciously through the frame and effects of new technologies.

In 1962, one could say the environmental movement began with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Carson's passionate description of the present and future effects of pesticides was an appeal for a new kind of guardianship over nature. The land became re-politicized. What was "good" in the eyes of the farmer and the consumer was bad for the dying songbird and those choosing to commune with nature. For John Steuart Curry, working the land meant protecting "our" children and a way of life. Good was direct and easily defined. Today, one may be pleasantly lost in the beauty of a landscape painting but never without an awareness of our potentially negative impact upon the environment. Good is no longer easily isolated from bad. As the environmental movement influenced thinking about nature, other more difficult and philosophical ideas about our relations to the earth arose. Biologist James Lovelock theorized that all living species are components of a single organism, Earth. The earth's biological processes are directed towards its survival, while the safety or survival of humanity is not Earth's ultimate goal. Nor are we nature's ultimate achievement. Further stated, humans are only a special arrangement of some earthly stuff because we humans think so. In this argument, it follows that the environmental movement is merely another self-serving use of earth.

Today, a landscape painting can no longer merely allude to a pure experience. Like most of us, many contemporary artists acknowledge and confront a myriad of environmental viewpoints, while those artists working in more traditional styles "recall" an uncompromised good earth. Both approaches reveal our emotional need and psychological response to a changed awareness of our relationship to the land.

                        In 79 AD, the Latin writer Pliny the Elder wrote of the specialized depiction of open-air vistas. Pliny describes the artist Stadius as "he who first introduced the most attractive fashion of painting walls with pictures of country houses and gardens, woods, hills, fishponds, canals, rivers, coasts and whatever anyone could desire, together with various stretches of people going for a stroll...fishing and fowling...." From Stadiusí earliest landscapes up through the 19th century, humans, often religious or allegorical figures, architecture, and/or animals were requisite content in landscape paintings. In 1969, nearly 2000 years later, when Neil Armstrong walked upon the moon he looked back at earth awe struck by its beauty. From Armstrong's viewpoint no human beings were visible. It is in the twentieth century that humans disappeared completely from landscape painting. One wonders if the disappearance of humans in landscape painting is due to our need to see the land as pure, good, and untouched. Or like the view from the moon, could it be that humans are beside the point in our perception of nature's beauty?

                        Among today's landscape collectors there is a persistent and clear preference for work absent of humans, architecture and animals. As we all know, artists do not necessarily paint to the preferences of collectors. More importantly, as some twentieth century artists have pursued a strain of painting in which the landscape is "pure," others have made the difficult questions about our relations to the land their subject matter. Those artists addressing the difficult questions have reinserted humans and architecture back into their works about the land. Moreover, when we take a wider look at how art at the end of the century embraces the landscape, what we find is diversity of commentary and content.

                        Boundaries between businesses, institutions, and nations break down as more of us discover the democratizing force of the Internet. As we the Internet users connect across these borders, our cultural barriers dissolve. What Curry referred to as "Our" can no longer be protected. Today, and only for now, an American culture dominates the business of the Internet but as modem-ization spreads across the globe no cultural identity can be dominant, much less isolated and uninfluenced. From the beginnings of this century artists such as Picasso generously borrowed from other cultures. In the future, it is likely that there will not be a sense of borrowing from other cultures, but that a more thorough and subtle merging of cultures will take place. By the end of the next century there may be one continuously evolving world culture. No doubt, the connotative meaning of Our Good Earth will change again. With a kind of deadpan humor Ben Howell Davis's painting Red and Yellow Horizon, with its reference to China, points to this inevitability. It is appropriate to our show that Davis rendered this statement as a landscape painting.