Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Swamp Godd Oracle

"Charles Burchfield — an Ohio native who spent most of his career in Buffalo and environs — is best known for his midperiod landscape watercolors: nostalgic Depression-era views of dilapidated small-town architecture or already-crumbling industrial infrastructure in the style that came to be known as American Scene Painting or Regionalism. Its main proponents were Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, and it has generally (if unfairly) been regarded in retrospect as a reactionary retreat into academic realism after the initial impact of the European Modernists after the 1913 Armory show in New York. Fans of this phase of Burchfield’s artistic evolution won’t be disappointed in this show; there are a dozen strong examples, including several, such as the nearly-abstract monochrome Night (undated), in which the balance between his nervous vision and the prosaic naturalism of his chosen style tips waaay to the dark side.

If Burchfields’s career had ended there, it would have been one kind of story. Because in spite of his popular and critical success as an illustrative painter of scrap-metal yards and snowbound factory towns, he had started out painting loose, swooping, color-saturated mystical scenes of nature built largely from an abstract symbolic alphabet of his own device. At the tender age of 24 Burchfield concocted more than 200 of what he referred to as “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts”— simple, biomorphic abstract forms defined by the interplay of dark and light, each one representing a specific emotional state: “Aimless Brooding,” for example, or “Dangerous Brooding,” “Morbid Brooding,” or “Imbecility.” Smells like teen spirit!

This remarkable (and long-lost) pictographic lexicon amounts to a singular declaration of American Modernism, and it’s where guest curator Robert “Culvert-through-the-BVM” Gober chooses to begin exploring Burchfield’s oeuvre. Using his invented abstract vocabulary, Burchfield grappled with what appears to have been a tremendous angst load, transforming his units of brooding and melancholy into components of a seething, psychedelic landscape whose pervasive vitality overwhelmed any petty motivations of self-pity. Instead, Burchfield’s self-indulgence took a different turn. Between 1916 and 1918 he produced hundreds of watercolors — half his lifelong output — each one teeming with symbolic portent, decorative inventiveness and a dreamlike animism where the ominously anthropomorphic or blankly inert architecture of human civilization appears to be in a cosmic struggle with the wildly vibrating energies of the natural world. The Insect Chorus (1917), for example, affords only a background glimpse of the stylized gables of a house almost entirely engulfed in arabesque clouds of foliage, which, in turn, mutate indiscernibly into layered graphic patterns representing the songs of crickets, cicadas and katydids.

It’s not surprising that when arch-Modernist Alfred Barr chose Burchfield for the first solo exhibition at New York’s newly founded Museum of Modern Art in 1930, it wasn’t the contemporaneous work — moody Hopper-esque street scapes like Winter Twilight (1930) — that he included but rather a selection of 27 of these exuberant, intricately coded, synaesthesia-induced fever-dreams from more than a decade earlier. Yet in spite of this belated institutional endorsement, Burchfield continued to hew his path through the decidedly unmystical Regionalist swamp — as Gober details in drolly titled chronological galleries titled “Wallpaper and Marriage” (referring to Burchfield’s lengthy 1920s stint as a wallpaper designer), “Public Acclaim or The Great Depression” and “War and Doubt.” If Burchfield had died in 1942, we would be left with a narrative arc describing a troubled, gifted youth overcoming profound psychological demons and reining in the extravagances of his talent to become an accomplished, well-adjusted, contributing member of society (while coincidentally abandoning introspective European-style Modernism for a meticulously crafted, socially responsible, populist pictorialism.) But Burchfield didn’t die. Burchfield went a little crazy."

Read the rest of American Dreaming: Charles Burchfield’s Imagination; Bridled and Otherwise here

More info on the Heat Waves in a Swamp exhibition here.

Images: Sun and Rocks 1918-50; The Insect Chorus 1917; Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring) 1950 - all watercolors

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