RISD Museum Opens ‘America In View’ Landscape Photography Exhibit

Monday, September 17, 2012


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Laura McPhee, Smoke from a Wildfire Ignited by Sparks from a Burn Barrel, Champion Creek, Custer County, Idaho, 2005. © Laura McPhee. Gift of the artist and Carroll and Sons (Boston, MA) in honor of Joe Deal.

Prepare for the RISD Museum to become a series of rooms with views as The Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design announces its major fall exhibition, America in View: Landscape Photography 1865 to Now. This broad panorama of the country’s topographies and correlating narratives that reveals a nation’s ambitions and failings, beauty and loss, politics and personal stories through about 150 photographs spanning nearly 150 years, opens Friday, September 21.

“The landscape has inspired and challenged artists since the earliest days of our nation,” said Museum Director John W. Smith. “The remarkable works in this exhibition not only capture photography’s evolving relationship with the landscape but also trace the larger narrative of America itself.”

Looking at wilderness

From the earliest images in the show, it is clear how purpose guided style. Carlton Watkins’ 1860s painterly and atmospheric views of the sublime landscape portray the wilderness as a place of spiritual renewal and a refuge from urban problems. In contrast, Timothy O’Sullivan, employed for the government’s geological surveys in the 1870s, made purposefully spare and anti-picturesque images that seemingly provide proof of empty territories needing to be studied, secured, and settled.

In her essay for America in View’s accompanying catalogue, photographer Deborah Bright, chair of the Fine Art Department at Pratt Institute, suggests that some of the historical shifts in environmental consciousness seen in the photographs "illuminate how the works also reflect changing conceptions of landscapes as bearers of cultural meaning.”

By the 1970s, artists including the late RISD provost and photography professor Joe Deal saw that the environment entailed both wilderness and the vacant lot next door. Their “New Topographics” imagery depicts recently constructed tract homes, industrial parks, and highway culture—inverting Adams’ exclusion. “‘Landscape’ is probably better understood as that set of expectations and beliefs... we project upon the world,” explains Brown University art historian Douglas Nickel, in the catalogue. “Not every photograph of land is a landscape, and not every landscape necessarily features the land.”

A return to the romantic

The past 20 years reveal a return to romantic views of the landscape, even in its degraded state, often including figures to create narratives. Justine Kurland’s landscape under an overpass shows a stunning place of fantasy and escape. RISD alumnus Justin Kimball explores fantasies of finding wilderness in public parks—where instead we find others seeking the same.

America in View was inspired by a generous gift of photographs from Deal and his widow, Betsy Ruppa. Jan Howard, the Museum’s curator of Prints, Drawings + Photographs, says, “This gift, and other contributions in Joe’s honor, gives the Museum a new strength in late 20th-century landscape photography, celebrated in this exhibition.”

Opening events

The public is invited to a free opening party at the RISD Museum on Thursday, September 20, at 5:30 pm; all are welcome. On Wednesday, October 3, at 6:15 pm, Sally Mann, one of the most influential photographers in the world today, shares her evocative images and reads from her forthcoming book. Additional programs and events will be announced. Visit risdmuseum.org or call 401 454-6500 for more information about programs + events at the RISD Museum of Art.

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