Andrew Gibbon Williams explores the wide open spaces ofAmerica’s Wild West, as depicted in an exhibition on Texas Realism, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
The temptation to view all 20th century American art as an eccentric offshoot of mainstream European avant-gardism is very great indeed. Yielding to it. however. produces a distorted version of the reality.
At the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art there is the opportunity to sample a small slice of the purest indigenous school to deveIOp in that vast and complicated land. Texas Realism brings together mostly lithographs. watercolours and a very few oil paintings by artists who, in America, are branded rather uninformatively as ‘western’. Working between roughly 1920 and the 50s, these were the people who took the barren-looking yet romantic territory of the deserts, cacti and rocky outcrops and — with a personality-effacing, descriptive subtlety which is at odds with our preconceived notion ofthe Lone Star State‘s brash vulgarity — transformed it into something mysterious.
Best known of the artists included is the Missouri-born Thomas Hart Benton who, during the 30s. played no small part in making Dallas the artistic centre of the region. His lithograph of 1948. entitled The Corral, with its stark and immediately identifiable western landscape features — wind-propelled water pump, cylindrical trough and rickety steading— epitomises the style of the Texan realist school. The same could be said ofJerry Bywaters‘s The Bone Yard, a view of abandoned, broken-down cars in a similar setting, which could well have been conceived with The Grapes of Wrath in mind.
Not all the subjects are rural: Florence McClung zooms in on grain silos at a Dallas crossroads. Lloyd Goff produces a very attractive small oil of a bridge under construction in the city. But even in these urban subjects, one senses the wide-open spaces in the near distance.
Setting aside the artists‘ general effectiveness in imbuing their pictures with the spirit of the Texan environment. it is the clean-cut technique of William Lester which results in the most interesting pictures. Like so many English romantic realists of the 305— Edward Wadsworth springs to mind — Lester was adept at emphasising the naturally idiosyncratic elements in a scene - a
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stunted cedar tree, a coffin-shaped rock formation . - in order to evoke nature’s menacing qualities. With its weird, flamboyant ﬂora, Texas lends itself to this kind of treatment as well as anywhere else. It was Georgia O’Keefe, of course, who evolved an internationally influential personal language from these same qualities in the neighbouring state ofNew Mexico.
Thankfully. this exhibition is not geographically exclusive and the most interesting locations in the
Century Plant: Big Bend 1939, by Jerry Bywaters (1906—1989)
region outside the state boundary get several looks in. Most dramatically in Gene Kloss‘s Christmas Eve— Taos Pueblo and the Spanish adobe churches drawn by Alexandra Hogue. Texans will never tell you this, but the richness ofthe Spanish and native American culture in New Mexico makes it a far more interesting state than their own.
Texas Realism is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern A rt until 2 Feb.
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