Category Archives: museums

Nation to Nation

“The Great Smoke” case features a series of pipes and pipe bags as part of The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian’s latest exhibition, Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Smoking played an important role at the Horse Creek Treaty gathering. The exhibition opens to the public at the National Museum of the American Indian on September 21, 2014. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian)

Since the National Museum of the American Indian has the best food of the Smithsonian institutions, it’s easy to find an excuse to visit it should I be museuming on The Mall. And once I’m inside it’s easy to stay and wander around. So after having lunch after visiting the Hirshhorn, I ended up exploring a number of the exhibits in the Museum of the American Indian.

Nation to Nation looks at the history of treaties between Indian nations and the United States, or colonies which would become the United States. I was curious and apprehensive walking in to this show since that history isn’t one which covers the United States in a lot of glory. My biggest hope was that I wouldn’t get too pissed off—whether in the brutality of the history covered or, even worse, by letting that history off the hook.

Thankfully I didn’t get too upset either way. The show is very good. It covers a whole range of treaties starting with those between the Colonies and various Indian Nations and it gets into what worked, what didn’t, and how even when things worked they only worked for maybe a generation.* It went into communication issues both in terms of how the different parties value written versus oral commitments** and how certain concepts were untranslatable.*** It covered the points of view and goals that the negotiating parties were coming from and how those points of views changed during negotiation.

*Best example here is William Penn’s treaty with the Lenape. 

**Both in the initial agreement and in how it’s remembered for the future.

***From concrete concepts like reservations to more abstract ones like who has the authority to make decisions on behalf of an entire group.

And it didn’t shy away from the repeated displacement of Indian Nations as settlers kept moving west. It details the brutality and death toll of the forced marches. It laments the loss of botanical and medicinal knowledge which accompanied moving away from native lands. It poses the difficult choice many Indians faced about staying with—and as part of—the tribe by selling their land and moving west as well or by taking that money and trying to stay “at home” even if it meant being detribalized.*

*The legacy of that choice is still complicating things today.

Nor did it ignore how the treaties often put the US Government at odds with what the local authorities wanted. In many cases, the US Government was negotiating treaties to protect the Indians from hostile states and settlers. Sometimes this worked out and prevented—or at least delayed—conflicts such as the one between Georgia and the Creek Nation. Other times, such as in California, the state was able to successfully lobby Congress to not ratify the treaty—resulting in an extermination campaign becoming part of the gold rush.

I appreciated how throughout the timeline, while centering Indian priorities, the exhibit also managed to tell the history of the United States in how its priorities changed as it matured as a country. Where the early treaties are chiefly concerned with keeping the peace and avoiding any armed conflicts that the newly-formed country couldn’t afford, later treaties become more and more explicitly about taking land and, effectively, building empire across the continent.

By the middle of the 19th century, as the military might of the US has increased to where it doesn’t have to worry about armed conflict as much, the treaty negotiations become more one-sided and the US demands become more complicated. It’s no longer just about displacing people so you can live on their land, it’s about land as an exploitable resource for mining, commercial agriculture, or transportation right of ways.

But what I appreciated most is how the exhibit follows the history all the way through to the present day. It’s very clear that, despite the history of broken promises, the fact that there were agreements between the US and Indian Nations remains an important precedent to remember. It’s why the Haudenosaunee insist on receiving the cloth from the Treaty of Canandaigua rather than accepting a monetary payment. The symbolism of the agreement and the recognition by the US Government matters more than the payment now. It’s how the preservation of fishing grounds in the Medicine Creek Treaty are still legally valid today. It’s the way that native children have to be treated as the citizens of those Indian Nations which they are.

I only wish that in the current-day sections of this show, in addition to the political/legal movements in gaining and maintaining increased Indian sovereignty, there was also information about things like the Dakota Access Pipeline. There’s a real sense that most of the conflict and negotiation regarding these treaties has moved to Washington DC or is taking place inside courtrooms. That there are also conflicts on the ground is important to remember. Especially when one of the most-visible conflicts is currently occurring in territory which is covered in one of the treaties which is on display. It shouldn’t be up to the audience to make those connections.

Ragnar Kjartansson

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Performance Art is always a weird thing to experience in a museum setting. Most of the time, instead of observing the performance, the museum describes the concept and displays the evidence left behind—leaving it up the the viewer to imagine the experience itself. The Ragnar Kjartansson retrospective at the Hirshhorn is a bit different in this case. While there are still lots of notes and maquettes on display,* many of the pieces on in the exhibition feel like the performances were just part of the process for creating the artwork itself.

*I particularly liked the set models for his opera without any performers.

What I saw when looking at things like The End—Venezia, God, or The Visitors, wasn’t evidence or notes. While it was important to know how the pieces on display were created, they stood on their own as objects in and of themselves.

The End—Venezia is superficially funny but the longer you look at it and walk around all the different paintings, the more it sucks you in and becomes about the paintings rather than the performance as you start treating it as a puzzle to putting everything in order. As you look more and more at how the paintings reference each other you’re also thinking about time and how things change over a summer.

God is very similar in that it’s superficially funny while it draws you into paying attention to something completely different and unexpected. Kjartansson’s singing isn’t the part that you end up paying attention to* as your attention slowly moves to the other musicians in the performance. Whether it’s the small tempo changes from the drummer or waiting until one of the idle musicians finally joins in you’re much more aware of how the entire musical piece is constructed here.

*Though there was something about it which reminded me of Thom Yorke and Radiohead.

The Visitors is a multi-channel installation in which it’s as interesting to watch how other museum goers navigate the space as it is to watch the piece itself. How everyone picks what screen, or screens, to pay attention to as the music shifts. How, as the piece ends, everyone figures out which screens the performers are moving to  and gravitates to those screens. This isn’t evidence which encourages passive viewing, it’s been thought out and the result is a surprisingly-interactive multimedia presentation.

In all these cases, it doesn’t really matter that the original performance was a piece of Performance Art. It’s a nice touch, but for me they could just as well have been created without an audience since that aspect isn’t present in any of the installations. The results are for the museumgoing audience.

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It is nice though that there is one performance piece on display. Woman in E reminds us of how different the performance part of Performance Art is. And there is a difference. More cameras came out for this piece than any other. There’s a weird energy around staring at the performer. There’s a weird energy around not paying attention to the performer. Everyone’s conscious about how there’s a person on display.*

*I can’t help but compare the way everyone is aware of the performer with the way that they ignore the security guards but that’s a completely different blog post.

And while reacting to the piece and the gold and the weirdness of treating a young woman in strapless gown as literally an object on a pedestal is a huge part of the experience. I also wanted to know about how long the performance lasted* and whether the guitar had been modified so that she didn’t have to actually hold the chord for the entire time.

*2 and a half hours per performer, 3 performers a day according to the security guard.

Philadelphia Zoo

Back to the Philadelphia Zoo with our membership and camera in tow. The kids weren’t feeling it this visit. End-of-summer malaise to the point where they really need the structure of school. Also, it was super crowded since we went on Labor Day weekend. Oh well, we got to see a fair number of baby animals.

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Paint the Revolution

Troubled Waters, 1949 José Chávez Morado, Mexican, 1909–2002

Troubled Waters, 1949
José Chávez Morado, Mexican, 1909–2002

Leopoldo Méndez, Mexican, 1902 - 1969

Leopoldo Méndez, Mexican, 1902 – 1969

Cloud of Lies. José Chávez Morado, Mexican, 1909 - 2002.

Cloud of Lies.
José Chávez Morado, Mexican, 1909 – 2002.

Retrato de la burguesía. David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1939.

Retrato de la burguesía. 1939.
David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Deportation to Death. Leopoldo Méndez, Mexican, 1902 - 1969.

Deportation to Death.
Leopoldo Méndez, Mexican, 1902 – 1969.

I just managed to catch Philadelphia’s Mexican Modernism show before it closed in early January. When I saw it I was mostly struck by the way it illustrates the development of a Mexican national identity—my notes are all about this process and the way that artists experimented in multiple styles and subjects as they developed what mexicanismo meant and looked like.

However, writing this post a month later put me a few weeks past inauguration day and into a completely different state of mind. I expected to be writing about the development of a certain look. Instead what I remembered most about the show was how quickly and strongly the Mexican artistic identity expressed itself as anti-fascist and anti-colonialist.

Mexican artists embraced an indigeneity where the peasants and the poor are now Indians being used and abused by urbanists, capitalists, and internationalists. In so many of the paintings and murals, modern society is a huge, military-industrial complex which uses the people as the literal raw material for making money. They’re busy and dark in how they blend flesh and machine, and labor and technology as components of the new way of things.

Where fascism is “colonialist procedures…applied to Europe,” Mexico has had a mixture of both power-hungry leadership and international interference which is disturbingly relevant now. That its artists have chosen to self-identify as “Indian” in order to frame and fight this dynamic is extremely interesting compared to the way that resistance in the United States still struggles with recognizing the nature of oppression that Indians and Slavery have suffered here.*

*Comparing the Mexican appropriation of either generic or Aztec indigeneity to the way Indian Nations work in the United States is something which is so far out of my area of expertise that I’m a little uncomfortable even mentioning it at all. But I feel like it’s important to acknowledge that I can’t help but see that the entire system in each country has to be different.

US resistance often feels like protesting because “if we don’t protest now it could happen to us too”—where “we” and “us” are the white middle class. It’s protesting because of something “unprecedented” happening—where the only thing unprecedented is in the who it happened to this time. There’s a disconnect where only certain protesters and victims count.

Looking at the Mexican art shows no such problems. The people are the natives whose land has been stolen and whose labor built the country. There’s no question about who the correct victims should be. The poor people. The laborers. The ones doing the most work for the least pay in the hardest conditions. They‘re all worth fighting for. All of them.

And the bad guys. Fascists are overseas trying to spread fascism across the globe. Fascists are at home killing or jailing anyone who threatens their power. Colonialists are trying to interfere in Mexican affairs so as to procure better trade relations or industrial positions. Capitalists and industrialist are getting rich by squeezing their workers as much as they can. They’re all bad and they’re all worth fighting against. All of them.

It’s a shame that the show closed right when we, as a country, can use all the references about fighting this crap that we can get. While seeing the full-size projections of the Rivera, Orozco, and Siquieros murals is impressive and there’s a ton of drama in the paintings, what I loved most was all the prints and ephemera with their multitude of pro-worker, anti-fascist messages on display.

Over and over again we see variations on the themes of fighting fascism abroad, staying educated at home, and decrying oppressions carried out by the government. That they’re on yellowing fragile paper shows how these messages were intended to be available for everyone in a way that paintings and murals, even when accessible to the public, can never be. Print is the democratic medium here and it’s exciting to see so much of it on display.

The sheer volume and variety of the prints demonstrate how deep Mexico’s visual culture is—to the point where it became obvious how Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography show just scratched the surface of Mexico’s visual literacy in constantly remixing, repurposing, and recontextualizing imagery.

On the development of a National identity

Man and Woman Rufino Tamayo, Mexican, 1899 - 1991

Man and Woman
Rufino Tamayo, Mexican, 1899 – 1991

Portrait of Mrs. J. Stogdell Stokes José Diego María Rivera, Mexican, 1886 - 1957

Portrait of Mrs. J. Stogdell Stokes
José Diego María Rivera, Mexican, 1886 – 1957

Self-Portrait with Popocatépetl Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo), Mexican, 1875 - 1964

Self-Portrait with Popocatépetl
Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo), Mexican, 1875 – 1964

Untitled (Dancer) Emilio Amero, Mexican, 1901 - 1976

Untitled (Dancer)
Emilio Amero, Mexican, 1901 – 1976

The blog post I was originally going to write is dead but it’s still worth expanding on the notes I took. A lot of the pre 1920s work is trying different things. This is especially obvious in Diego Rivera’s work—most of which looks nothing like what he is associated with—but with all the artists there’s a lot of working within European techniques and esthetics but applying them to Mexican subjects and landscapes.

We get to see artists like Adolfo Best Maugard and Dr. Atl* develop more Mexican-specific techniques and styles. That these styles also involve appropriating pre-colonial design elements only encouraged the development of the national identity to be one which understands how colonialism is still at work everywhere in the country.

*I especially liked that Atl Color is considered a distinct medium in and of itself.

Other notes

Pottery Vendors, 1934 Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Mexican, 1871–1946

Pottery Vendors, 1934
Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Mexican, 1871–1946

Beneath the Maguey. José Clemente Orozco

Beneath the Maguey, 1927
José Clemente Orozco

I was struck by how many of the paintings were under glass. This made sense with the pastels but I didn’t see the point of having that extra layer with many of the other works. I really liked how many of the paintings are on cardboard or other “cheap” materials.* This gave a certain vitality to the work since it suggested that the creation and the image was more important than the object itself.

*Like in the case of Alfredo Ramos Martínez, on pages of the Los Angeles Times.

I enjoyed seeing and thinking about how photography interacted with the painting and printmaking. While there were many non-Mexican photographers working in Mexico in the 1920s, their work doesn’t suggest that there’s a revolution going on. I couldn’t help but look at José Clemente Orozco’s Beneath the Maguey and not think of Weston’s Maguey—especially since both images are from the same time period. While that Weston image wasn’t in the show, I was pleased to see other images of his there and I was especially excited to see a lot of Tina Modotti as well.

Universe of Maps

After spending time at the Cantor Center, I wandered over to Green Library to check out the Universe of Maps exhibition. The Rumsey Map Center is a wonderful resource and I’ve long enjoyed exploring davidrumsey.com. Being able to see highlights from the collection in person was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

The exhibition is really a greatest-hits kind of show. No overarching theme, just case after case of cool shit. So I’ll just go down my notes and write about what jumped out at me.

Coloney & Fairchild's Patent Ribbon Maps ... Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters. Coloney, Fairchild & Co. St. Louis: 1866

Coloney & Fairchild’s Patent Ribbon Maps … Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters. Coloney, Fairchild & Co. St. Louis: 1866

The Colony & Fairchild ribbon map of the Mississippi is impressive as both a map and an artifact. It’s an eleven-foot-long tape measure of a map which seems utterly unusable since you have to unspool it completely in order to see the headwaters. At the same time it’s a wonderful way of looking at the river and perfectly demonstrates how it functions foremost as a transportation route. What’s most important on this map is what you encounter as you go up or downstream as towns and tributaries function the way you’d expect train stations to show up on a modern transport map.

The process of straightening out the river—but not too much—is one which I’d love to learn more about too. They very clearly had to get the river to fit in a straight line but there’s still a lot of meander detail visible. I don’t know the river well enough to gauge whether or not it’s done well but I love how this map keeps a sense of riverness in the abstraction.

The Road from London to Aberistwith, in Britannia, Volume the First. Or an Illustration of the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales. John Ogilby. London: 1675

The Road from London to Aberistwith, in Britannia, Volume the First. Or an Illustration of the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales. John Ogilby. London: 1675

Similarly, the London to Aberistwith wayfinding map interested me because it’s another map built around a specific use case. As with the Mississippi map, this one is very clearly a navigational map which takes a traveler from one point to another.

These kind of maps are also interesting because while the intent of these kinds of maps is to help inexperienced travelers, they also end up describing the journey and the territory covered. Where my kids like to trace on their maps the exact route of their journey, this would be like giving them a straight-line map showing them only what they encountered.

Photo-auto maps–Albany to New York. No. 745,744, 743, and 742, in Photo-Auto Maps. Photographs of Every Turn, Together with a Topographical Outline of Road Showing Railroad Crossings, Bridges, School Houses and All Landmarks with Accurate Distances Between. Gardner S. Chapin; Rand McNally and Company; Arthur H. Schumacher. Chicago: 1907

Photo-auto maps–Albany to New York. No. 745,744, 743, and 742, in Photo-Auto Maps. Photographs of Every Turn, Together with a Topographical Outline of Road Showing Railroad Crossings, Bridges, School Houses and All Landmarks with Accurate Distances Between. Gardner S. Chapin; Rand McNally and Company; Arthur H. Schumacher. Chicago: 1907

Seeing the Aberwistwith map paired with the Photo-auto “map” was fantastic. While I have a hard time calling this a “map” I also don’t know what else to call it. It very clearly serves the same navigational use-case as a map does. It’s probably even easier than a map for some people to use as it mimics the kind of verbal instructions that people create. When we tell people where to go we highlight waypoints and tell them what to look for. Yes, street names and cardinal directions are also helpful, but it’s really things like “second left after the gas station” which make directions useful.

This also reminded me of Google Streetview and GPS-based navigation. Very useful when you can’t get verbal directions from someone but also no sense of the overall journey. While I am grateful for step-by-step directions, I’m never satisfied unless I can also figure out how they fit in to the general area.

A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America, in An Historical Atlas; in a Series of Maps of the World as Known at Different Periods; Constructed upon an Uniform Scale, and Coloured According to the Political Changes of Each Period … Edward Quin. London: 1830

A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America, in An Historical Atlas; in a Series of Maps of the World as Known at Different Periods; Constructed upon an Uniform Scale, and Coloured According to the Political Changes of Each Period … Edward Quin. London: 1830

The historical atlas with fog-of-war to give a sense of what hasn’t been explored yet was very striking. I love the idea of “what we don’t know yet” being an integral part of the design. Instead of zooming out to reveal more of the world, it’s very obvious that there’s a lot of world out there which is unknown.

I also enjoyed how this depiction reminded me of the fog-of-war feature in Warcraft and Starcraft. As with the Street View navigation photos, it’s fun to see how old ideas have been rediscovered today.

Maine, in Atlas of the United States, Printed for the Use of the Blind. Samuel Gridley Howe; Samuel P. Ruggles. Boston: 1837

Maine, in Atlas of the United States, Printed for the Use of the Blind. Samuel Gridley Howe; Samuel P. Ruggles. Boston: 1837

I don’t have much to say about the atlas for blind except to note that I was impressed that it was raised relief text rather than Braille.* It’s also just a neat artifact to see since we rarely see things like this in any museum. Even in the design exhibitions at dedicated art museums I can’t think of any pieces of accessibility design.

*That this was published the same year that Braille was developed is a nice coincidence.

Underground, in Map of London's Underground Railways. Underground. A New Design for an Old Map. Henry Charles Beck; London Transport. London: 1933

Underground, in Map of London’s Underground Railways. Underground. A New Design for an Old Map. Henry Charles Beck; London Transport. London: 1933

It’s always lovely to see a classic in the flesh. The Beck map is one of those landmarks of design. I can’t imagine the world without it as we’ve absorbed its lessons so thoroughly that this is what all subway and transport maps have as their reference now.

As is often the case with landmarks of design, I was surprised by how small this was. I know I know, of course it’s small, it’s a subway map. But because of its prominence in the history of design, I had imagined it as something bigger.

Panorama of the Seat of War. Birds Eye View (from) Virginia (to) Florida. John Bachmann. New York: 1861

Panorama of the Seat of War. Birds Eye View (from) Virginia (to) Florida. John Bachmann. New York: 1861

What I like most about Bachmann’s Panorama of the East Coast of The Confederacy is that it’s a view looking West from the Atlantic ocean. In addition to not being a standard view, it also ends up being a specifically political view. Orienting the map this way makes it represent the point of view of the Union blockaders. It’s not just the seat of war it’s an “us versus them” view of that seat.

A Map and History of Peiping (Beijing). Frank Dorn. Tientsin-Peiping: 1936

A Map and History of Peiping (Beijing). Frank Dorn. Tientsin-Peiping: 1936

Frank Dorn pictorial history of Beijing was just a lot of fun. It’s a reminder of how maps aren’t just about super-accurate roads and locations, they’re also a way of depicting and remembering a place. When I was a kid, these kind of pictorial maps—typically a gimmick for local advertising—where what sucked me into being interested in maps in general. The Dorn map is a much older example which is about memory instead of advertising.

This map has also gotten me thinking about trying to draw my own pictorial maps of my youth. As I’ve come to be more of a tourist in my hometown, I’ve been finding myself filling in my childhood memories and connecting where everything used to be. I’d like to be able to share these with my kids rather than be one of those dads pointing out the window while driving past where something used to be decades ago.

Also at the Cantor

A few quick reactions to other things which I saw at the Cantor Center after I finished looking at The Art of Water.

Lewis Hine (and Jason Francisco)

Lewis Hine, Fall River, Massachusetts, June, 1916

Lewis Hine, Fall River, Massachusetts, June, 1916

Jason Francisco, Fall River, Massachusetts, March 2015

Jason Francisco, Fall River, Massachusetts, March 2015

There was a Lewis Hine show consisting of small prints of his child laborer photographs. It was nice and focused and played with the idea of childhood as depicted in the photographs. The kids are working, but unbowed still. So in addition to being a time capsule of a moment in American history, these photos also capture a fleeting moment in our development where we’re reminded of what childhood itself means. The catalog by Alexander Nemerov looks interesting to read too.

These photos were paired with modern photos by Jason Francisco which, while not exactly rephotographs, complement to sense of fleetingness in the Hine photographs in how we not only have child labor anymore, we don’t have any labor anymore. Francisco’s photos aren’t exactly my cup of tea (too much tilt-shift for my taste) but they work well enough when paired with Hine’s.

Art++

I really liked the Art++ experiment. As with the previous Rodin’s Hands exhibit, this exhibit brought iPads into the room and set them up with augmented reality so, when you point the camera at one of the articles on display, a whole bunch of digital overlays become available for you to explore. In addition to providing additional context, these overlays also explained how the artifacts have been constructed, retouched, reconstructed, etc.

I’m excited to see where they go next with this idea.

Blood in the Sugar Bowl

Henry Corbould. Fashionable Women Pouring Tea, c. 1805.

Henry Corbould. Fashionable Women Pouring Tea, c. 1805.

William Blake. A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows, 1792.

William Blake. A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows, 1792.

This was wonderful. But then I’m a sucker for when an exhibition brings a whole bunch of different media together and puts them in conversation in an unexpected way.

In this case, the objects were all about the theme of sugar and slavery. So we had portraits of plantation owners and prints from the plantation estates. Books about the atrocities committed on those plantations. Sugar bowls and decorative objects and how those were used culturally. And the wall text pulled no punches and got its politics absolutely correct.

The Basement

Lucy Lewis. Owl, 1966.

Lucy Lewis. Owl, 1966.

I’m kidding. While the Cantor Center is laid out by region and segregates Asian from Native American from African art from everything else, those are not relegated to the basement or any other remote corners of the museum. So it’s relatively straightforward to walk through these galleries just to see if they’re doing anything interesting—or anything that’ll piss me off.

The African galleries are still very much like how they were a couple years ago in focusing a lot on contemporary African art and treating it all from a post-colonial point of view. It’s a point of view which still works for me.

I was very pleased to find that the Native American rooms were also focusing on contemporary artists. In this case though the theme was contemporary artists working within native traditions.* Highlights include Kent Monkman, Calvin Hunt, and Art Thompson. I also particularly liked Lucy Lewis’s work. One of my pet peeves is recent art displayed in ancient rooms as ancient craft, so I took great joy in finding a room which highlights how these traditions are art which is still being practiced and taught today.

*This isn’t Cantor-related but this SFMOMA blogpost by Linda Yamane is worth looking into for more information on this kind of thing.

The Asian gallery meanwhile took a completely different approach by focusing on ceramics and grouping everything by technique. Thankfully they clearly labeled contemporary stuff as “artist, country, year” instead of forcing the  “country, dynasty/period (years)” label on everything.

 

California: The Art of Water

Albert Bierstadt. Lake Tahoe, Spear Fishing by Torchlight, c. 1875.

Albert Bierstadt. Lake Tahoe, Spear Fishing by Torchlight, c. 1875.

William Keith. Headwaters of the Merced, 1876.

William Keith. Headwaters of the Merced, 1876.

Carleton E. Watkins. Malakoff Diggins, North Bloomfield, Nevada County, Cal., ca. 1871.

Carleton E. Watkins. Malakoff Diggins, 1871.

Thomas Hill. Untitled (Irrigating Strawberry Fields), 1888.

Thomas Hill. Untitled (Irrigating Strawberry Fields), 1888.

Dorothea Lange. Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields, 1937.

Dorothea Lange. Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields, 1937.

Ansel Adams. Shasta Dam and Mount Shasta, 1961.

Ansel Adams. Shasta Dam and Mount Shasta, 1961.

Richard Misrach. Diving Board, Salton Sea, 1983.

Richard Misrach. Diving Board, Salton Sea, 1983.

Robert Dawson, Private Property, Lake Tahoe, California

Robert Dawson. Private Property, 1988.

Edward Burtynsky. Owens Lake #1California, USA, 2009.

Edward Burtynsky. Owens Lake #1. 2009.

David Maisel. The Lake Project 3, 2001.

David Maisel. The Lake Project 3, 2001.

The Stanford Museum’s Art of Water show is one of the most California exhibits I’ve ever seen. It’s very very interesting and very very good as it uses art’s depictions of water to tell California’s environmental history. Stanford’s press release is actually a great primer on what the exhibition is doing so I don’t need to rehash much of that part. But in short, while water access is one of, if not the, biggest issues in California, art has presented the opposite reality for much of California’s history.

Since artists are drawn to water as a subject, they gave impression that water is more prevalent than it really is. Combined with the way that early photography is often either “land which needs to be tamed,” or “land which has just been tamed” there’s a real sense of California as being the land of unlimited resources.

As someone who’s not normally interested in American landscape painting, I was very excited to look at the paintings with this context. It also forced me to think about the way my perspective is biased* in terms of the subjects I’m attracted to, the places trails take me to when I’m hiking, or the open space destinations I’ll drive to.

*As with war photography, it’s always worth remembering that perspective is a disease of the eye

This view continues well into the 20th century as photographs of water infrastructure tell a story of continued development. I was reminded of the Edison Archive and how the increased water infrastructure is intimately tied to the creation of suburbia and the white consumer class. There’s still a sense of water being infinite and something that we should completely harness to power homes and fuel agriculture.

It’s only later when the environmental movement kicks off that we start to get more critical views of water usage. While there’s not much “traditional” environmental photography showing unspoiled nature which is under threat,* instead we jump straight to ironic views which riff on the expectations and show how we’ve depleted what little resources we actually had.

*While not photographing California, Eliot Porter is the best example of this type of thing.

In these cases we see how fragile water—and access to it—is. Lakebeds are drying up. A single pipe snakes vulnerably through the mountains. There’s not enough water to go around and the resulting ecosystem is an alien landscape of salt deposits which looks nothing like the lush depictions we’ve become used to.

Robert Dawson’s work is particularly noteworthy here. He just photographs the quixotic nature of water infrastructure but it’s so effective because of how much we’ve internalized what rivers and lakes and waterways should look like.

What I enjoyed most about the photography portion of this show though is how it not only tells the history of California but it also neatly fits into the old topographics vs new topographics story of photography. This results in a much-more-focused and much-more-coherent version of SFMOMA’s California and the West exhibition. It’s missing the social aspect of things but with regard to landscape photography, it makes a lot more sense.