Road Trip: America Through the Windshield
Since ancient times, depicting the landscape has been a way for artists to explore the relationship between nature and humankind. In recent times, that relationship has often been experienced by car as part of a daily commute or an epic, Kerouacian journey. From urban landscapes in which billboards and stoplights replace trees and mountains, to the landscapes of national parks, tourist attractions along the United States highway system, the artists in Road Trip: America Through the Windshield look at the ways in which the road has transformed our interactions with the land.
The paintings from Gregory Thielker’s series Under the Unminding Sky inspired the exhibition’s title: the windshield, covered with water, is the lens through which the urban landscape is experienced. Thielker’s paintings highlight the viewer’s separation from the surroundings. The windshield is a barrier, protecting from the elements but distorting the imagery. Is the landscape seen from inside the cocoon of a car ever fully experienced? Or does it become abstract, unreal, like the images seen on TV and computer screens?
Amy Stein photographs moments when the safe haven of the car betrays the rider. For her series Stranded, she traveled throughout the United States photographing stranded motorists and abandoned automobiles. Both people and vehicles seem lost and uncertain, out of place in the landscape, engulfed by an environment to which they have no connection. Stein relates these images symbolically to a feeling of abandonment by the American Dream, caused initially by the poor government response to flooding after Hurricane Katrina. In light of the worldwide recession of 2008 and the devastating effects of global warming, the American Dream, as embodied in the automobile and the open road of unfettered possibilities, has become an increasingly questionable ideal. Stein’s photographs of people and cars going nowhere are telling indicators of a system that no longer functions.
Jeff Brouws is interested in cultural geography, or the underlying social reasons for the roadside landscape. His portfolio Storage Units shows the bizarre effects of rampant consumerism: rental space in the middle of nowhere in which people store their excess acquired stuff. Brouws notes that these units also serve as opportunities for landowners to generate income in undeveloped areas. The stark lines and rigid grids of these structures contrast bleakly with the endless skies and rolling hills of the surrounding landscape.
Arriving in the United States from his native Spain, Juanli Carrión took road trips around the country as a way to learn about American culture. Particularly struck by the strange relationship of Americans to their vast landscape, he documented it in two photographic series represented in this exhibition. Atlas Shrugged is a reaction to his reading of Ayn Rand’s novel about a dystopian society. While Rand lays the blame on a government that stifles creativity, Carrión explores the negative effects of industrialization. He mounts the photos on light boxes, the format used for displaying Chinese landscape paintings often found, in their most synthetic and kitschy form, in Chinese restaurants. Highlighting the contrast between the idealized Chinese landscape and the actual American landscape, Carrión throws into relief the effects of human intervention.
Carrión’s series Onstage emerged after a residency in the western United States introduced him to the historic plaque as landscape marker. Historic events, often of questionable significance, were noted on signs mounted on bare hillsides. Ostensibly attempts to bring tourism to otherwise forsaken areas along lonely highways, these markers became the means for people to mark their territory, to “own” the landscape by attaching it to an event in human history. “Mysterious Incident at Lake Desmet” allows visitors to listen to the story on one of these markers, in the voices of such symbols of the fictionalized American west as John Wayne. The environment in the photo is dramatically lit, emphasizing the ways in which history is created as it is staged within the landscape.
Letha Wilson’s photo sculptures merge landscape photography with concrete. She deliberately fuses images of natural beauty — trees, mountains — with a material of human construction, showing not only the tension between the two, but also the new possibilities that exist within their combination.
The road and landscape in Thelma Appel’s painting “Exodus by Moonlight” represent not just an American landscape, but any hostile landscape of fear and uncertainty. As a child Appel endured an exodus from her birth land of Israel to her mother’s homeland of India in the wake of her parents’ divorce. This painting depicts the exodus of anyone who has to leave their home and travel to unknown lands. The road becomes a symbol of exile, the landscape of unknown dangers.
The road has permanently changed the American landscape. It has allowed Americans to travel throughout the United States and learn more about the country’s diverse topography. Experiencing the landscape through the windshield has, at the same time, led to a certain alienation from it. The development of roads and the increase in traffic have inevitably caused the built environment to encroach on the natural environment, with results that are not always positive. Ultimately, the landscapes depicted by the artists in this exhibition become projections of the road trips through them and the people on those journeys.
— Jennifer Scanlan, curator