For Spacious Skies, Rebecca Farr’s New Work
August 17, 2014
At edge of Rebecca Farr’s studio, sitting below on the ground underneath her new body of work The Sweet Broken Now, is an unfinished painting showing just a hint, just a ghost of a man leading a woman on horseback through a splayed canyon. The scene may feel familiar: the Holy Family on the flight to Egypt, Joseph guiding the donkey carrying the precious cargo of Mary and Jesus. However, the painting also refers to a specific take on the Bible story, a take central to our aesthetic and cultural life in America: George Caleb Bingham’s Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap, 1851-52.
That this painting lays just to the edge of Farr’s current work is poignant. Bingham’s classic, which resides in the Washington University Gallery of Art in St. Louis, demonstrates perfectly how 19th century America mixed territorial expansion with the sacred. The central figure of Daniel Boone is not only an explorer, he is the extension of Joseph, protecting a noble and civilized (read White) race. The work cannot help but echo the words of journalist William Gilpin, which critic Robert Hughes chose as the “quintessential utterance” of western expansion in his American Visions:
“The untransacted destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent – to rush over this vast field to the Pacific Ocean – to animate the many hundred millions of its people, and to cheer them upward . . . to teach old nations a new civilization – to confirm the destiny of the human race.”
In other words, Gilpin is giving voice to Manifest Destiny, the now poisoned term which comes across with bitter irony every time one beholds a sprawling California subdivision or is told to avoid a polluted fishery. Farr’s cycle of paintings, Sweet Broken Now, is obsessed with legacy of Gilpin’s vision, aiming to give both its history and subsequent irony of its legacy a voice in the present.
Bingham’s painting holds both sincerity of settler and the irony of the settler’s aftermath at the same time. To contemporary eyes, the ruined and shredded trees to either side of Boone, which to Bingham represented a divine right and glorious victory of man over nature, can now be seen as the hubris of shortsighted speculators and dreamers. We now know what naturalist Edward Muir foretold at the end of the aggressive expansion of the 19th century: natural resources were always and still are limited. We feel their limitations with increasing urgency.
However, it is more than that. Instead of a pastoral vision of our own country where man and the earth peacefully co-exist as in Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Fredrick Edwin Church paintings, often the human race is seen as something removed and foreign, as though nature is put upon by humanity. It almost seems unnatural (in the full sense of the term) to see an unbroken, unblemished landscape painting. We would have to be unified in our own hearts to believe such a vision, and that union is increasing farfetched.
It is fitting, then, that Rebecca Farr’s meditations on Manifest Destiny take the form of collage, for it is in collage that we often see ourselves these days. Collage points to the human self as a collection of often conflicting destinies, as a construction of competing truths. Farr cuts from magazines and books, our collected body of knowledge and packs the surface with these fragments. The surface of a Farr painting comes across with the rough handed saturation of a Jasper Johns flag, soaked with color and bled through with paint to give off the sensation (though not the intellectual truth) of a unified object. In the same way that Johns’ reanimated the symbol of the American flag in times of increasing unrest in America, showing the turbulent collaged underbelly of something often presented as a divine truth, thus Farr’s painting shows landscape through its broken past.
The clearest expression of Farr’s take on landscape may be Tillage, 2014, a broad painting with all sorts of texts, maps, and stories rising up like a windstorm on a prairie. The storm, however, intently splays to both sides, showing a space in the middle. One sees this space in most landscape painting: the sky showing between two sets of mountains or trees moved each side to accommodate a view of distant lands in the center. There is usually a burst of sun, sometimes an erupting volcano. Farr leaves us the same space, the space where Bingham would have placed his intrepid travelers, but instead Farr just leaves it open, letting a dull yellow permeate the surface. She manages her to get the light of what was called Luminism – that glow in Bierstadt, Church, Cole and most of 19th century landscape painting – but Farr’s light is less religious source than the air which holds a wind so complicated and conflicted that it bursts into a torrent of confusion.
Most of Farr’s other works in Sweet Broken Now seem to branch of from Tillage, 2014. Whereas this work zooms out on landscape and shows a large, whirling space, Farr’s other paintings look closer at the human habitation of a landscape. Collaged people emerge from blacks and blues, snow drifts of white and grey to enact what seem like strange rituals. In Light, Dark, Savage, Saved 5, 2014, we see a man alone at night, perhaps studying or lonely in some sort of removed constitutional. In Light, Dark, Savage, Saved 1, 2014, two women emerge into light as though out of a baptismal river. End of Time 5, 2014 directly quotes Asher Duran’s Kindred Spirits, 1849, placing a man on horseback at the left of the frame, overlooking a collaged valley below as Duran’s explorers observed the Hudson River Valley. These the new and scattered religions of the collaged self. This this now how we must interact with our environment, eager to use it in its grandeur but always aware of our impact on it. Each step must be counted and tallied against the limited resources of our overly taxed world.
This is what connects Farr to Manifest Destiny. In contemporary life, we still have destinies, we still have strange compulsions which take us forward and give purpose. However, this destiny is hardly manifest. Instead, this destiny is constructed, it is built from history and the accumulation of every action in history and our private lives. That Farr oscillates between this fact and how this fact impacts our view and use of environment makes her another traveler in the long and great tradition of American landscape painting.