Americana at the Cincinnati Art Museum

Mammoth Cave by Charley Harper

Cincinnatians, I’m wholeheartedly recommending the current batch of exhibits at the Cincinnati Art Museum — Big Country: Charley Harper Draws America, Walker Evans: Decade by Decade, Vegas 360, and ArtWorks: The American Road. I’m impressed not only by the quality of the individual exhibits, but by the synergy among them.

Big Country: Charley Harper Draws America features some of his original painted collages for Ford Times Magazine which were exhibited last summer at Fabulous Frames & Art, among them a few of the “Horseless Carriage” images that were turned into a popular series of serigraphs. The original White Sands, New Mexico is among them! The amazing aspect of seeing his originals is seeing their construction — layers of paint and paper, clean lines and deliberately messy areas. Charley painted like a draftsman, but there’s a looseness to his work as well, which doesn’t necessarily come across in his prints but is clearly evident in his paintings.

Walker Evans: Decade by Decade includes some of his stealth subway portraits. Imagine the technical feat he accomplished with these images, before cameraphones enabled their users to surreptitiously photograph anything all the time. And, if I’m not mistaken, photography is no longer allowed by the MTA. There’s a certain straightforwardness and honesty in Evans’ photography that I really appreciate.

By contrast, Vegas 360, an exhibit of panoramic photographs by Tom Schiff, is all glitz and glamour. I’ve seen Schiff’s work before, and it’s always technically impressive and unusual, if at times a bit gimmicky. But, when he turns his attention to the Vegas Strip, the results are appropriately lurid and disorienting, capturing the other-worldly, grandly scaled elements of Vegas in similarly other-worldly, grandly scaled panoramic photographs. The neon signage is especially compelling.

Speaking of neon signs, the American Sign Museum is collaborating with ArtWorks on a project in the CAM’s ambulatory, which combines a selection of lit commercial signs with a mural depicting a landscape of roads and roadside elements. ArtWorks: The American Road is very much in progress right now, and a small-scale mock-up of the mural design is on display.

In the context of all this, the 1956 Ford Thunderbird currently on display makes perfect sense as an American road-tripping machine, and not just as a design object. I believe it was Aaron Betsky who initiated the rotating display display of classic cars, and this is the first time that I really get the sense of a conversation between the car and other exhibits. Prior to this, the car has seemed like simply another object deemed worthy of attention.

So, it’s probably already obvious that I love art, and my enthusiasm for this crop of exhibits reflects my bias toward art things. Even if you’re not an art lover, do yourself a favor and go to the CAM this summer. The work can be appreciated on multiple levels, and I think you’ll make some of the same connections as I did, and hopefully others. If that’s not enough of a selling point, let me also point out that it’s all free and very comfortably air-conditioned. During this heat wave we’re having, that’s definitely a plus. Just go.

Sidenote about Charley Harper: there is currently a small exhibit of originals at Fabulous Frames & Art on West 4th St. downtown, and another exhibit of originals is opening next weekend at the Phyllis Weston Gallery in O’Bryonville. This summer is turning into a celebration of Harper’s work, which is well-deserved.

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2 thoughts on “Americana at the Cincinnati Art Museum

  1. I saw some of Charley’s work when it came around to SF- I didn’t realize it would be like peering backstage. You would never guess the layers of paper, tape, etc. while looking at the children’s books he illustrated.

  2. These originals [and the ones you saw] were created for photo reproduction. In books and magazines, you don’t see that the colors aren’t flat, or that the original illustration is a collage with a layer of paper slightly coming up.

    I recently saw a Harper original that’s clearly painted on top of another painting. I’d love to see the painting that’s hidden underneath.

    I guess the thing to remember with these images is that Charley was a working illustrator, and these were not precious works of art.

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