Monday, April 23, 2012

My Epiphany about Regionalism || Open Thread

OK, so this is not a well formulated idea yet. I suspect it has the potential to be viewed as insulting to some or make me sound like the worst of snobs, for which I will preemptively apologize. That's not my intent here. But to get a conversation started about it, I'll throw it out there anyway.

Last year, Murat and I almost bought a house upstate. We were almost in contract, we had been preapproved, had the lawyers lined up, etc. etc., but something told me we should clear our schedules, sit down and crunch the numbers again more granularly, do some serious soul-searching, and be sure before we signed.

After that process, we decided the timing wasn't right. Among the factors bringing us to that decision were how busy we are with the gallery and Moving Image, and admitting that it would be a constant struggle to find time to get up there.

This was a few weeks before Hurricane Irene caused the terrible flooding upstate that wiped out so many fabulous houses and village main streets in the region. The only bridge to the house we almost bought was washed away as well. As much as it broke our heart to hear the tales from the people we knew up there who had their property damaged, we were also somewhat relieved about our decision.

But with Summer approaching (seriously, it is...), almost no weekend goes by that we don't pine for what might have been. We imagine ourselves, after a busy day of working on the house and garden, relaxing on the porch, watching the sunset, or lighting a fire in the fireplace and falling asleep watching an old movie. Ahh....

You see, we like the area we almost bought in a lot. In searching for a house (we must have looked at 60), we have spent a fair bit of time up there. We like the people up there, the pace of life up there, and the gorgeous scenery. We probably have overly romantic views of it, in part because we don't (yet) own there (and, for example, didn't have to clean up after the flooding or fret about our investment, etc. etc.), but somehow the region has got into our blood.

And so, when I got an email recently about a gallery show in the upstate region, of paintings of the scenery up there, my heart jumped a bit. I really wanted to see that exhibition. Even though I didn't know the artist, and though the few images I saw suggested the work was well done, but not necessarily going to rock my world, the fact that the work was about something I care about...about a place I really like...made it seem really special to me.

It was a very odd realization for me, too, when I figured out why I wanted to see that show. It was ONLY because it was painted in and was about the region I like. The art snob in me, always seeking out the "universal" or widespread appeal of artwork, was essentially told to sit down and shut up by the would-be gentleman farmer (WGF) in me, whose knee-jerk reaction to the invite was "I'd love to own a painting of that mountain range."

And then it hit me, that this feeling was a unique appeal of artwork that we would classify as "regionalist," and not just of representational regionalism, but of artwork created in and reflecting the lifestyle and mind set of a subsection of the world better than any of the international, universal work out there ever could. Yes, its specificity is perhaps also one of it's "problems" from a critical point of view, but the WGF farmer in me didn't care. He responded viscerally to the work, or at least its subject matter, and wanted to see more of it. It was its specificity that made it special and desirable.

Even if Famous Artist X were to travel to that region and paint the same subjects, I don't believe I would have been as immediately intrigued by an exhibition of the work. There was an element of local hero worship in my response to the announcement. But more than that, there was an emotional attachment that overwhelmed my carefully cultivated big city cynicism, battling back the voices sneering "if the exhibition were worth your time, you'd have heard of that artist before" or "how silly would that look on the wall next to your {Famous Artist Y}?"

That immediate emotional attachment, though, was exquisite (before I began deconstructing it, anyway). It was genuine and intense. Those are not two words I often use to describe my response to work I see at internationally renown galleries or even contemporary museums. Which isn't to say the regional work is more accomplished or deserves to hang in said museums more than the work one typically finds there. But it's not nothing, either.

Consider this an open thread on what regional art can do that work created for an international audience cannot.

Labels: art viewing, open thread, regionalism


Anonymous Gam said...

its often said that you think local to act global, and I often wonder if there is a "terroir" to art as there often is to gourmet gastronomy ...

we don't shun regionalism in wines, champagne, scotch, and even cheeses so why must we in the arts?

technically I guess you could argue in favour of regionalism via appropriation if you pushed it far enough,

the time may come for you both, but from recent experience, it really is a culture shock, the darkness slides off the hillside and settles like a scarf around all, and whereas the lights may dim, the sounds become more vivid , really worth the realization of how our spaces do condition our senses ... keep dreamin of the possiblity Ed, I think you'd both like it. (maybe rent for the summer and see how it actually does fit)

4/23/2012 03:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...


ha! isnt it act locally - think globally -- jeeesh

4/23/2012 03:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Zipthwung said...

They don't call them New York artists for nothing.

4/23/2012 03:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

I can see how the work of a local artist (who makes work of or about the local area) would have a richer quality. But could regional work exist beyond landscape? Could there be such a thing as conceptual regionalism? Or, once an artist addresses a larger art context than the local, it cannot be regional? Which is more admirable/desirable, a truly regional landscape painter or one living in same isolated area doing work in a conceptual mode. I realize the answer is "it depends on the work", but in general I think it is interesting to think how we respond to an differentiate these types of artists.

4/23/2012 03:35:00 PM  
Blogger ryan said...

I think most great works of art have a strong connection to place, and are influenced by their surroundings. Whenever I walk into a studio or gallery in Bushwick I often feel the vibe of the neighborhood in the work. Even though it's made and displayed within NYC, I think you can find elements of regionalism in art spaces across the city.

I say this as someone who spends a lot of time outside of NY in an area with many artists and galleries. Up here we have our own art stars, our own established galleries and alternative spaces; it's a mini art world all its own. Much like Ed's admiration for the painter showing upstate, I know many gallerists up here who don't want to show another landscape painter from the area and are anxious to show something new and unknown (perhaps a Bushwick-based artist...) So I suppose the grass is always greener.

4/23/2012 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger christian said...

Hi Ed, this is an extremely interesting topic to me. I just comment on a post on the Southern Photography Blog which addressed the subject from a bit of a different angle.
Yes, I do think there is a place for regional art, and I don't think for a moment that it need be inferior at all. Perhaps a lot of times it is, but especially in photography, I think it is not.
At the same time I fully realize that if one goes to extremes in with this outlook one runs a strong chance of becoming a parochial hack and bore.
Best wishes with your search for a 'weekend' home, but do take a look at some marinas on weekends and see all the boats that are still tied to the dock. They all belong to people who were going to buy a boat to 'get away' on the weekend!

Best wishes,


4/23/2012 03:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a distinction between regionalism and 'a sense of place'. Regionalism refers to 'regional areas' and are places that city folk generally refer to as 'quaint'. People who visit Quaintsville (insert generic town here) usually want to take a little piece of heaven home, and tourist art provides that. I'm an artist and I live in Quaintsville. Unless you want to make tourist art, there isn't a market. Picture yourself pitching your latest conceptual art project to your grandmother. Chances are your latest piece, 'Neuro-aesthetics and the Willy Wonka Colourfield Ship' will be met with "yes dear" or most likely "why can't you just paint the pretty scenery?" To rub salt in a wound, cities are becoming more and more elitist and territorrial. As more progressive regional artists swarm to the city by the thousands, locals are claiming their ground and closing the flood gates. "This is my city! You go get your own city!" Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side. But that doesn't mean I want to paint it.

- generic artist

4/23/2012 05:15:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks for raising the distinction between regionalism and 'a sense of place', generic artist.

I would agree in principle that an artist living in a place that most big city dwellers would call quaint can work in the realm of "conceptualism" as readily as in the realm of landscape representation, but I do have to wonder, as Christopher K. Ho explored in his last show at our gallery, whether conceptualism doesn't require being immersed in a dialog it's hard to imagine taking place in Quaintsville to a degree large enough to continually fuel a conceptualist's work. In other words, unless an artist living in Quaintsville connects with the others invested in the (some) dialog, for feedback and advancement of ideas, one does begin to wonder whether your grandmother's objections won't begin to win you over.

4/23/2012 05:37:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Could there be such a thing as conceptual regionalism?

ahh, I see Mark already beat me to the punch here...

4/23/2012 06:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Patrick said...

Ed, I live out in the middle of nowhere yet have access to a city of some size. The sense of place reigns supreme, and also creates a regionalism because the area is absolutely stunning and readily appreciated. (This collective mind is the same wherever people share something in common.)

Is it possible to go against this grain to create something more conceptual? Sure, but I have found it to be a solitary practice, which is also part of living in Bumfuque. And sure, the neighbors don't necessarily understand or appreciate it unless the sense of place enters into the work, which, by the way, is almost impossible to avoid at times.

Basically, it's never clear cut. Buy the damn painting and make two people happy.

4/23/2012 08:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe a long time ago people from Quaintsville were less informed on current conceptual trends, but that's certainly not the case now. You can be typing away in Elk River Idaho, working on your MFA thesis from a top conceptual University via correspondence. Most people have access to all of the same information.

To assume that an artist is less involved in progressive dialogue simply because they're in Quaintsville is highly dismissive. Everyone is on Facebook. Everyone Tweets. Everyone blogs. We all know what color tie Jerry Saltz wore to the last opening. Quaintsvillagers have their finger on the pulse.

-generic artist

4/24/2012 06:33:00 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I live in a plains state. To my knowledge, few artists of international reputation have bothered to paint this environment (thank you Rackstraw Downes) so the task of articulating goes, by default, to the local artists. The artists who do it intelligently matter, right here.

The state I live in is relatively young and the seminal influence of the artists who established art departments at the bigger universities is still evident, though becoming fainter due to time and the ease of travel and communication. I'm not convinced this wider awareness has resulted in more interesting art.

Concerning conceptual art outside of the major art center: it's certainly attempted but typically lacks rigor, obviously rehashes and adds little of value to the conversation, local or otherwise. Could it's need to exist in the thick of the action be like that of high fashion?

4/24/2012 11:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Laura Isaac said...

This is a topic I've been wrestling with lately. I'm involved in The Charlotte Street Foundation's (the leviathan of arts funding in KC)current show The Frontier in which they've asked us to consider what it means to be an artist here.

It's a question I spent several years pushing to the back of my mind. Particularly since I don't do landscapes, livestock paintings, or photos of The Plaza. But now I'm really trying to be present with my fellow artists in the show and see if I can pin point what makes us "different" if anything. I can tell you that a majority of the work in the show at this point is interactive, conceptual, and filled with discreet objects; but it is all specific to our "region," Kansas City.

I'm sorry my thoughts aren't organized on this yet at all. Still digging.

4/24/2012 11:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Deborah Ainscoe said...

Living in the heart of a city in central uk I find the connectedness of current media is as relevant to my daily input. As is the local light, sensibilities of people, colours sounds and smells of a broadly multicultural one time mining and textile making city. I don’t know quite how but I do know my work cannot help but be influenced by all the things I absorb every day. If that makes it regional then it is so in a very broad sense of the word.
Last year though, I spent 8 months in Southern Spain, in a place I fell in love with 20 years earlier. The strong light, the stark shadows, the pace of life, the air - the difference (from what I’ve always been used to). A bohemian Spanish atmosphere and a simpler village way of life.
I came away from those 8 months with huge restorative benefits for my work and in myself. Whether it was literally from the change of scenery or because of all the things I just mentioned. My work had a sort of re-boot and on my return took a slightly different tack. The local work I saw there that was obviously for sale, was indeed what you would see in any village relying on cash from visitors to its lovely whitewashed walls on a hill. Sugar cube houses and blue sky paintings in abundance.

Other local work and artists were not thin on the ground by any means, although centres or spaces to show the work certainly were (no real enthusiasm or money in local infrastructure). Their work would be far from tasteful sculpture or even gaudy landscape. Work made in a bold and possibly typically Spanish way of seeing, that also typically, the Spanish would probably buy because it was so obviously speaking a Spanish aesthetic. Work that you would have to travel miles to see if intent on buying and If the work gave a nod in the direction of locale, then even better.

I don’t know what that says, other than a personal experience of what I came across over 8 months – but the regional work I saw was more wholly Southern Spanish (as in different from Catalan which does seem to have different feel). Is it history ? the Arab influence in that regions art and architecture? with the full on emotion as expressed in Flamenco dancing and singing. The spread of cultures, something an area cannot help but absorb by default over time ?

So anyway I’m glad I did spend 8 months and didn’t just up sticks and go. I should have realised this before, but I found out no matter how lovely this place was and is - I am indeed a city person and not a village person – and for me, I believe that would apply to any country : ).

Debbie, Nottingham UK

4/24/2012 02:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Floyd Alsbach said...

You were infected with the realcountry virus my friend, once infected you are part country for life. My sense of place is not any city, nor anything close to a city. My few paintings of cities are those of a visitor. And yes, city painters who come to the country to paint, cannot escape that look of a visitor. I had been to NY several times yet after a 3 week show in 1987, I had also found a job, got in a artist run Co-Op, and made friends with a couple of gallery owners. (I suspect I was seen as an entertaining bumpkin.) I never went back. I couldn't get what my brothers, sister & I used to call a woods fix. We grew up along the Mississippi in Jefferson County MO. We could walk out the door, across the neighbors yard and we were in the woods, another 300 yards and there was the river literally more than a mile wide, unless it flooded. We often walked in the woods along the river for hours, fished, hunted and played.
In NY the concrete & steel is commonplace, everywhere, what little 'nature' there is is grey green and sickly looking to a country boy. The trees in Central Park look stunted, the grass trampled, the few times I saw a bird it was like a friend showed up from out of nowhere.

I knew that staying in Missouri was the end of any hopes of a 'real' art career, but my new wife & I were ok with that. So for the last 25 years I have painted when I can, what & how I please and made a living in construction. We raised a family, had our share of struggles (a few rather intense) but over all we have lived reasonably well. I may visit NY again someday, but... it won't be for long.

4/25/2012 08:20:00 AM  
Anonymous John Anderson said...

I identify strongly with what you say. One of my most prized paintings is by an artist whose name I don't even remember. It's of an old Southern home and it's because the South is in my heart that I love it.

My work abstract work will be featured on the cover of an international magazine next month, but it's my local scenes that sell the most.

I think Jack White hits the nail on the head when he says people buy art that connects. Obviously that's what you were experiencing. It's also what others experience, and it's not a bad thing. Technical achievement does not always, in itself, appeal to buyers. One reason Kinkade sold was--like him or not--he connected to people's hearts. Good column

4/25/2012 12:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Betty Pieper said...

I like when people post and admit they are on to something but thinking it through which can be helped by others. In that vein, will you Ed tell me why you think people like in small towns upstate...don't think or paint 'conceptually'? Maybe I'll answer my own question by saying that more and more I'm not even sure what contemporary painting is.
I thought that was what I do whether landscapes or abstracts or people - The above discussion is interesting but unfocused around the big themes. Yesterday I viewed a painting by Petko Pemo, Bulgaria,
titled the End of the Village and was greatly moved by it. It reminded me of my "Farmhouse in Winter"in Glenville. Both have a sense of place; both evoke strong feelings and I would think are 'conceptual'.
Can you clarify? Betty Pieper, Upstate

4/25/2012 07:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One example of a regional art scene with global reach is the St Ives School, UK, considered important enough for the Tate to open a now internationally renowned museum, also home to the Barbara Hepworth Musuem. The area still inspires many artists, some drawing on the stunning Cornish scenery others tackling more conceptual issues within there works, it a very lively art scene. Therefore I would suggest that it could be considered a curiously perfect blend of art; from tourist scenery to some of the greats from British Modern Art. Without wishing to sound too egalitarian it offers something for all, the romantic who wishes to treasure the scenery of an area they love to the serious art connoisseur on a pilgrimage to discover the works of Barbara Hepworth, Alfred Wallis, Henry Moore to name but a few great artists that have been inspired by this region of the UK.

I could go on with other examples; but I think it is worth considering that only thinking about work made for the 'international' audience is just another of 'regionalism'

4/28/2012 06:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regionalism has nothing to do with the art i do , my influences are what i do for a living. my heroes of the past and life experierences.

If i painted it would be crazy abstract style that would have nothing to do with the state or city but based on life experiences and my messy brain.

I wish I could paint figures , I saw two lovers at the bus stop the other day it was a incredible moment.

I guess i could try to sit down a hour a day and try to learn to draw.

5/02/2012 04:44:00 PM  
Anonymous sue said...

This interests me greatly. I am reading it because my NY conceptual artist pal who is represented by you sent it my way. I paint landscape (mostly) but I think of myself as a contemporary art maker. I paint my region, of which I have two; I am closely connected to New England and the Southwest. I have also traveled extensively through the entire country and consider it my place beyond my immediate region. My knowledge and experience traveling, learning the culture of our country as a whole has influenced my political thinking, my art and my way of being in the world as I grow older. I think a lot about how I am viewed as an artist...landscape; from a small area…do my New York friends think I am a dork? No. They respect my work and include me in the greater dialogue even though I am thinking and making work that is about me, my region and my personal attachment to ideas of place and love of the land. I love that you had that gut reaction.
Get the house, you will be psyched!

5/10/2012 05:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If regional art can make ones "emotional attachment" win out over once "cynicism" well that in itself is a good enough reason to give it consideration.

5/18/2012 01:15:00 AM  

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