Robert Frost & J.J. Lankes: A Shared Vision of America
Through June 15
Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery, 23rd and West End avenues
Hours through Apr. 30: noon-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 1-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Summer hours: noon-4 p.m. Tues.-Fri.; 1-5 p.m. Sat.
For information, call 322-0605
The phrases coined by poet Robert Frost (1874-1962) are embedded in our national subconscious. No longer simply poetry, his words have become American proverbs, tossed freely about and rarely attributed to their creator. Still, the poet and his works have long had their due in terms of public recognition and critical acclaim. The illustrations that artist J.J. Lankes created to illustrate Frost’s words, on the other hand, have never been accorded the kind of attention they deserve. Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery’s current exhibit, which reunites Frost’s printed words with Lankes’ woodblock prints, amends that oversight at last. Drawn primarily from Nashvillian Pat Alger’s extensive collection, the exceptional exhibition includes vintage photos of Frost, rare first editions of his poetry, handwritten poems and correspondence, and, best of all, dozens of Lankes’ understated yet uncannily evocative woodblock prints.
Lankes (1884-1960) was a prolific illustrator who produced some 1,350 designs over his career. Of these, at least 125 were inspired by or created specifically for use with Frost’s poetry. The men first became acquainted after Frost saw Lankes’ work “Winter” in a 1922 issue of Liberator magazine. It’s easy to see from the work, which is included in the show, what drew the poet to the printmaker. The rear view of several frame houses huddled together under a blanket of snow is quintessentially American in both its sturdy look and self-reliant mood. With his own penchant for rural subject matter as a way of exploring man’s place in the scheme of nature, Frost immediately recognized a kindred spirit in Lankes. He contacted the artist and asked him to illustrate his poem “The Star-Splitter” for The Century magazine. Lankes’ illustration for that poem, also in the show, beautifully mirrors Frost’s words in its image of a solitary tree whose bare branches wave against a cloud-strewn dawn sky.
The work marked the beginning of a professional relationship and friendship that would last four decades. Fruits of this creative partnership fill the walls and display cases of the Fine Arts Gallery. Brief text panels provide background on Lankes’ works and their relationship with a particular Frost poem or volume of poetry. Viewers learn, for example, that Lankes created the 1921 woodblock print “October (Moonlight and Apple Tree)” before he ever met Frost. The artist had read Frost’s 1914 poem “After Apple-Picking” and converted the poet’s verbal images of a fruit-laden tree and a harvester too weary to gather any more apples into a striking visual of a tree and a ladder at twilight. There are also sketches and prints Lankes did of Frost’s Vermont farmhouse for a 1939 volume of poems and handwritten letters from Lankes about his visits to the Frost home.
Illustrations Lankes did for other authors and publications are also in the show. His 1940 “Winter Dawn,” created for Progressive Farmer magazine, is displayed with the artist’s original sketches, a lithograph of the magazine cover, and an oil painting from which the cover was taken. A text panel notes that Lankes’ image of a bright star shining over a snow-blanketed village also became a popular Christmas greeting card, one that many viewers may still recall.
Like Frost’s words, most of Lankes’ best work was produced in the decades prior to World War II. It was a turbulent, changing America, with the population shifting from the farms to the cities, technology racing ahead, and nations arming themselves with horrible weapons of destruction. As Vanderbilt professor Mark Jarman writes in the exhibition’s catalogue, “Frost’s greatness as an American poet is embodied in his wish for wholeness in a fragmented and confusing world.” J.J. Lankes’ greatness as an artist lies in his ability to express a similar desire in visual rather than verbal terms. Together, Frost’s poems and Lankes’ woodblock prints continue to resonate, evoking an America still shared in spirit, if not in reality, by its inhabitants in the 21st century.
If you are among the many who find those yapping mechanical robot dogs more annoying than amusing, head for the Fugitive Arts Center, where Swiss artist Eliane Rutishauser has incorporated the little beasts into a video installation, “Nächste Generation,” that tweaks our notions of what art is and how we talk about it.
Twenty of the toy dogs are suspended by strings in what serves as the foyer of the center, a bare-bones conversion of an old warehouse near Greer Stadium. A flick of a switch brings the toys to life, and their shrill chorus recalls nothing so much as the sound of Hitchcock’s menacing flocks in The Birds. The incessant chirping follows the visitor into the center’s gallery space, where a projector flashes a short video onto one wall. The star of the video is the artist, who shot the footage in the gallery itself. Her co-stars are more robotic pups, which she displays on a table-sized white cube while schooling the viewer on how to select, approach, and place art the feng shui way.
Feng shui, of course, is the Far Eastern philosophy of harmoniously living with the energy of one’s surroundings. It is manifested in the art of placementboth of buildings and of everything within them.
Rutishauser riffs on the feng shui possibilities of art, picking up identical robot dogs as if each were a different, precious object and divining its vibes. She also discusses proper placement of art in the home, dragging a pack of the mechanical toys from one corner of the display cube to another and rhapsodizing over the different effects thus achieved. But the best part of the video is when the artist sternly counsels against a “direct” approach to art and demonstrates its perils by disappearing off-screen and steering the camera directly into one toy pup, sending it crashing. Far better, she shows us, is the “curved” approach to art, which she demonstrates by steering the camera on a winding path that ends without impact on another toy dog.
It is perhaps debatable whether this video installation can be considered a serious work of art, but who says art has to be serious? Without question, few works are funnier than this parodic look at ourselves as we look at art.
Fugitive Arts Center is located at 440 Houston St. Hours are 3-6 p.m. Fri.; noon-5 p.m. Sat. For more information, call 256-7067.
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