Until the modern age, visual artists such as Rembrandt or Van Gogh had a relatively straightforward task when it came to painting or drawing landscapes; all they needed to do was paint what they saw just outside their front door or down the street. Today, the visual artist has to contend with a landscape cluttered with cars and commercial crap. It’s safe to say the landscape painting that you will see hanging over sofas in a suburban Minnesota home is more likely to be painted in the French countryside than the Interstate 494 strip in Bloomington. James Howard Kunstler describes the American landscape as a “landscape filled with cartoon buildings in clownmobiles, absorbed in clownish activities”.
The contemporary American landscape presents practical problems for the visual artist that did not exist before the middle of the last century. A huge problem is the amount of space in our landscape devoted to automobiles. Surface parking lots and ramps have replaced many buildings. These automobile storage facilities are rarely beautiful (there is, however a competition for parking ramp design – I kid you not). The vast expanse of monotonous concrete and asphalt reserved for automobiles crowd out the surviving pieces of pre-urban renewal, human-scale cityscapes. In suburbia, the landscape entirely conforms to the needs of automobiles. Huge swaths of grassy lawns separated by enormous highways, parking lots, berms and confusing frontage roads. Most suburban landscapes are destination-oriented that most people drive through rather than walk through and experience in any meaningful way. Nobody expects to see plein air artists setting up their easels in the grassy median in the middle of Flying Cloud Drive outside Eden Prairie Center unless they are off their meds.
Automobiles pose a unique visual problem for the present-day plein air artist. Unlike horseless carriages manufactured before World War II, today’s cars are manufactured in a wide range of styles, sizes and colors. There is a vast number of these garish, and often freakishly enormous motor vehicles festooned with bumper stickers, spinning hubcaps, truck nuts and furry, pink mustaches cluttering up the present day landscape. Cars are filled with people who would otherwise be walking around in the landscape. Cars create landscapes devoid of human life. The artist is often confronted with a wall of cars blocking the view. The artist can choose to edit out the clutter of cars, but to removing all the cars from the present-day landscape is dishonest – like photoshopping away blemishes and wrinkles. Sometimes, I keep cars in my sketches, but make them partially transparent as I did in this sketch of Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis:
The present-day landscape is also heavily salted with commercial statements; Billboards, plastic signs and people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with corporate logos. The very design of clothes, shoes, buildings and cars shout for attention in a way that creates discordant notes impossible to reconcile in an artistic composition. The contemporary artist cannot just paint or draw what he or she sees without making a statement about the commercialized landscape and the tattooed and the automobile-ensconced, logo-emblazoned consumers who populate the suburban and urban landscape. Picture the dull, monotony of suburban housing in Blaine, the outsized McMansions of Plymouth, the gap-toothed city streetscapes of Saint Paul overrun with speeding cars and crowded with signage and a multitude of glaring and blinking traffic-guiding devices. A straightforward depiction of this visual mess would invite ridicule. An ironic approach is an option, but would an artist really want to waste many hours painting a garish landscape as a joke? How many people would purchase a painting of an intersection in Blaine to hang over their sofa? Yet, some artists feel a need to depict the degraded landscape as they see it. My wife Roberta Avidor sketched an abandoned Woolworth store in downtown Saint Paul from the skyway over Minnesota Street. Roberta’s sketch captures the forlorn and depressing building on a dreary, gray winter day:
The contemporary American landscape is also embedded with hidden legal land-mines for visual artists. Our landscape has privatized spaces remotely observed by cameras, protected by security guards backed up by law enforcement. A painting of a suburban landscape with its ubiquitous corporate logos could invite a lawsuit over copyright infringement. Set up an easel in front of an industrial facility, nuclear power plant, airport or railway and you can expect a swift response from private security guards and police. The rural landscape is not a refuge for the artist – industrial agriculture dominates our rural landscape and present-day farmers are very wary of negative publicity. Some states have sought to ban any visual portrayal that depicts where we grow and raise our foodstuffs and anything but an archaic, bucolic image of family farms as they existed in Grant Wood and Norman Rockwell paintings.
I’ve been ejected from a casino for sketching. I’ve been challenged by a private security guard in a skyway in Lowertown Saint Paul (ironically known to be an artist district). Other artists have told me stories of being chased from department stores and public places by uniformed guards. In 2003, a security guard tried to prevent me from sketching a cityscape from a downtown Minneapolis sidewalk. The police told me I had a right to sketch, however they requested I “sketch something nice” I wrote about that incident and later created the comic strip below titled “Art Critics With Badges”:
Most Minnesotans are not even aware of the landscape they live in and drive through. The act of driving an automobile at speed is a hinderance to contemplative observation. Most Minnesotans reflexively glean only essential visual information necessary for safe navigation on highways and streets. The experience of being in a car hurtling through the landscape and being a pedestrian or bicyclist in the same landscape are radically different. The bicyclist and pedestrian have much more time to observe and experience the landscape the driver staring out from a narrow windshield. It is as if we live in two worlds, one canned and stale and the other alive and fresh.
Years ago, a woman looked a one of my sketches and asked what the tall structure was, I told her it was a cell phone tower. A few weeks later, we met again and she told me “Now, I see cell phone towers everywhere!”. Sketches can be like the red pill in the movie “The Matrix”.
The skyways of the Twin Cities offer another canned experience similar to being in an automobile – how many skyway walkers notice the ghostly imprints of pigeons on the windows as they walk by?
Most contemporary American fine art avoids painting and drawing the contemporary landscape just outside the front door and down the street. Most of the contemporary landscapes you will find in Minnesota art galleries and museums depict pastoral farm fields with a rusty manure spreader or woodsy scenes from the Boundary Waters. You may find cityscapes that focus on old grain elevators and public parks. More often than not, the landscapes are devoid of humans as if the city was depopulated by an epidemic or a neutron bomb. The human form in a contemporary painting is more likely to be a nude painted bereft of tattoos, Levis, Dockers or Nikes. However, I think there is artistic value in the present-day human form and I admire artists like Don Colley who can portray ordinary people in their mass-produced attire with some of their dignity intact.
I am an illustrator and cartoonist so I don’t expect anyone to hang my artwork over their sofas. Sketching is my way of keeping up with ever-changing look of people and their surroundings. Sketching is also a good tool to observe and analyze the contemporary landscape while waiting in line or taking a bus. When I feel the need to draw a contemporary scene, I take out my hardbound Strathmore toned paper journal with a fountain pen and colored pencils or watercolor. A quick sketch can take a few minutes and a good sketch takes a few hours to complete. While I sketch I think a lot about what I am sketching. I often write notes about what I observe in my sketches. Sometimes I capture snippets of dialog I overhear while sketching people.
It isn’t all grim. There are things in the urban landscape I like to draw. I particularly like to celebrate parts of the cityscape where people can walk and bike. Sometimes I like to sketch a surviving structure from that the pre-auto-dominated era. An example is this sketch of the few surviving buildings on Kellogg Boulevard one of which is occupied by the urban apiarist Mademoiselle Miel’s kitchen (more sketches here):
In future Sunday Sketch posts, I’ll share more ruminations, both celebratory and crabby that occur to me while sketching.
NOTE: Roberta and I will be showing our journals talking about sketching at the Bell Museum Thursday March 6th.
Here’s a sketch I did a while back in the Bell Museum, a walrus skull from their vast collection: