Country: Photographs by Mike Smith
Through April 19
4107 Hillsboro Circle
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat.
For information, call 297-0296
Earth Portraits: Paintings by Gary Ernest Smith
Through May 25
Tennessee State Museum
505 Deaderick St.
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat.;
1-5 p.m. Sun.
For information, call 741-2692
My mother grew up on a small farm in Kentucky that raised corn and other crops. My husband’s mom grew up on a sugar cane farm in Louisiana. As children, we both spent time on those farms during the summer. Fewer and fewer people share that experience these days, secondhand though ours may have been. That’s not surprising, considering that only two of every 100 Americans now earn a living farming or ranching.
Yet the land still exerts a powerful pull on most of us, especially in the spring, when it shakes off the browns and grays of winter and turns green almost overnight. If most of us no longer plow fields and plant cash crops, we’re at least getting our hands dirty in the flower garden.
For painters and photographers, the land has always been a favorite subject, and two artists currently exhibiting in Nashville show just how differently it can be approached. Gary Ernest Smith grew up on the family ranch in Oregon, and his works at the Tennessee State Museum offer an insider’s look. Mike Smith, a New Englander with an MFA from Yale, is an outsider whose point of view is naturally different; his photographs of the East Tennessee countryside are at Cumberland Gallery in Green Hills. Both artists, however, share an affinity for the land and a respect for its many variationseven those not usually considered visually appealing.
Mike Smith, for example, isn’t interested in photographing the grandeur of the mountains that populate East Tennessee. What fascinates him is the countryside surrounding the “Tri-Cities” of Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport. It’s an area where the natural beauty of the land is frequently juxtaposed with industrialization and other side effects of human habitation. But Smith chooses not to comment overtly on political or social issues. He focuses instead on the inherent humor in a feisty mongrel pup standing guard beside a dilapidated trailer or the compositional beauty of a white plastic shower curtain floating in an algae-choked pond. Other subjects include raccoon tails hanging on the side of a wooden shed, a graveyard of old cars covered with dead leaves, and a once fine Victorian farmhouse dissolving into rot almost before the viewer’s eyes.
Smith shuns the sun, shooting only on overcast days and mostly in the fall or winter months. Because of the diffused light, though, the dull yellows, browns and occasional green and red of those seasons have a rich, saturated look.
Smith also finds wit in the coexistence of man, animal and the land. In one photograph, he trains his camera downward at a creek tracing its way through the bare trees, only to find a dingy white cow staring back at him with an accusatory eye. In another, a small but feisty-looking dog is dwarfed by the severely tilting patio umbrella to which the beast is tethered. Even Smith’s views of misty mornings and rolling hills are offset by the ramshackle sheds or trailer homes ubiquitous in rural America today. Far from making a negative statement, his photographs confront what the land can and often does look like in the 21st century, challenging the viewer to consider an alternative to conventional scenic beauty. (Smith’s work will be the subject of another local exhibit, “The Shape of East Tennessee,” running through June 1 at Cheekwood’s Temporary Contemporary Gallery.)
“The Landscape in Perspective,” also at Cumberland Gallery through April 19, offers more interpretations of the land by seven photographers from around the country. Works range from Nashvillian Jack Spencer’s sepia-toned views of the American South to Michael Kenna’s elegant studies of the land and water of France and Japan. Other highlights include Richard Misrach’s color images of the Bonneville Salt Flats and Lynn Gessaman’s lush color and black-and-white photos of the West Europe countryside. Styles and formats vary, but each of these artists celebrates the land as a source of infinite beauty.
Gary Ernest Smith’s oil paintings of Western farms and ranches on view at the state museum offer an even more traditional interpretation of the land. Smith works bigsome paintings are 20 feet wideand in a Regionalist style akin to Thomas Hart Benton that casts the land and its people in romantic, even iconic, roles.
Works from Smith’s “Field Paintings” series dominate the exhibition. In these mural-sized canvases, vast cultivated fields takes up most of the image area, leaving only a narrow horizon line across the top. Smith presents fields in every season, painting the progression from turned earth and spring greening to autumn harvest and winter’s rest. The monumental, sweeping scale and the focus on the soil create considerable impact, both visually and viscerally.
“I wanted the paintings to be large and spacious, with the emphasis on the dirt itself,” Smith says in Holding Ground, the full-color coffee-table book that serves as the show’s catalog. “I wanted to re-create the feelings of well-being I get when I am out in these fields, and to have other people feel the way I do: to have respect for the earth, the dirt. These fields are a basic pattern on the earth and most people do not see it.” It’s a fact of 21st century life that most Americans will never experience that pattern firsthand, but at least in Smith’s paintings, we can make a fleeting connection to the farm-based culture that once dominated this country.
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