Hey National Parks Gang,
I have a confession. I’m exhausted and unprepared for class tomorrow. In the last two weeks I’ve been at two conferences. I was in Milwaukee for the annual meeting of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (our accrediting agency) and I returned in the wee hours of this morning from Durham, North Carolina, where I participated in the Southeastern College Art Conference (SECAC). I don’t think I am going to be able to get the Wilson reading done before class tomorrow and I feel rather guilty and a little embarrassed about that, especially because I recently sent you my impassioned email about being prepared for class. May I ask for your forgiveness in advance of class?
At SECAC I attended a session called “Taking Art Apart” which was about art or artistic practice in which destruction or deconstruction takes place. One of the presentations was called “The Skinning of Sor Pudenciana,” and it was about a 17th century Mexican painting of a nun that Frederick Edwin Church had purchased and restored. One of the things he did was to over clean an area of the painting which is referred to as “skinning.” The presenter, Catherine Holochwost, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, talked about a number of other paintings by other artists that Church had painted on, including a landscape by the Luminist, Johnson Martin Heade.
I always thought of Church as rather stodgy, but apparently he has a sense of humor. Church had a studio in New York City in a building known as the Tenth Street Studios. This building was notable as it had been constructed in 1857 and was the first building in the U.S. designed just to be artist’s studio. Many well known artists had studio space there and they apparently engaged in some serious partying, too. Holochwost told stories about how they would steal props (like buckskin clothing from Bierstadt) from each others studios and hold impromptu masquerades in the hall. Regarding this studio camaraderie, she showed this painting by Martin Johnson Heade:
Its a very odd painting. Heade is usually know for his landscapes with soft ethereal, “luminescent,” light. His scenes of salt marshes in New England are among his best known work. The playful, whimsical, even surreal quality of this painting is very unusual. It depicts a landscape propped up on two saw horses. The river running through the marsh spills out over the edge of the landscape and pools on the “ground” under the landscape. If you look carefully, you can see the moon-faced “gremlin” peering out underneath.
According to Holochwost, this strange aspect of the painting was not by Heade, but was from the hand of Church who she said snuck into his studio one night and added this detail to the painting! The gremlin in the studio wasn’t the one depicted in the painting but Frederick Edwin Church. While its a likely nothing more than a prank, it really struck me as an interesting idea. Two major landscape painters, artists who spent their lives and careers making images of realistic landscapes, were here playing with the notion of landscape as a construction. While the landscape seems to be real, its really just an artificial structure propped up on some rather rickety looking supports.
When I learned about this during this presentation I immediately thought of this class and the many discussions we have been having about landscape and nature and how we have been wrestling with ideas of how to make sense out of a lot of conflicting ideas. I’m glad I could share it here with you.
See you tomorrow night. Oh, and don’t worry — I will be ready to show and discuss the Disney cartoon, “In the Bag”!