Spacious Skies or Racist Lies?

An exhibit challenges accepted notions of all-American stereotypes

Sometimes the curatorial investigations that go into framing an exhibition bog down or crowd out otherwise interesting ideas that might have arisen quite naturally from the curator’s choices.

This seems to be the case with “Wide Open Spaces,” a group show at P.S. 1, which aims via a circuitous route at framing a discussion of cultural diversity (the curator is English), “others” and images of the popular notions of “America.” It goes on from there into headier places, which the press release––freely available in stacks at the main counter—elucidates.

The exhibition puts together photographic work by artists who helped establish the images that make up a certain European version of an American myth—L.A. Huffman, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Robert Adams as well as artists including Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman who challenge or expose the mechanisms that go into myth creation. It’s nice to compare the earnestness––even if possible only with blinders––of the work of the first group with the astuteness of the second.

The curator, David Thorp, also chose to include a large number of illustrations of work by members of the American Society of Botanical Artists, which gives the exhibition a curious Audubon Society meets International Center for Photography feel. Sometimes putting two registers in close proximity to one another creates an interesting dialogue, however that does not seem to happen in this case.

What the exhibition seems to argue is the impossibility or even silliness of attempting to convey the truth of something through representation. Proclaiming Thorp’s foreignness, it goes back and forth simultaneously holding up an idea of America all the while undermining the solidity of that very same idea. Sometimes an outside perspective can be a useful or revealing one, which is the case here.

These are, in fact, some very “American” images. Granted, the meaning of that concept will forever be up for debate, but at least in terms of art and photography, the images of this show have in many ways framed considerable portions of that debate. Thorn has included some of the most iconic and recognizable images from the image repertoire of twentieth century American photography. Their historical stature and significance make it difficult to imagine them as foreign or displaced, especially in this context––in New York at P.S.1, an important affiliate of the Museum of Modern Art.

These images are in important respects a visual and conceptual representation of America that is at least partially accurate. Certainly anyone who has traveled the American West can appreciate the stark beauty and monumentality captured in the work of Ansel Adams and Robert Adams. L.A. Huffman’s work documents one view of the myth of the American West. Cindy Sherman’s work aims at exposing gender constructions, which is undeniably in the service of equality, liberty and justice, precisely some of the things left out of the earlier work.

Getting past the theoretical trudging, what this exhibition obviously raises is the idea of what America means, if anything. In spite of what is arguably its own efforts to undermine itself, the exhibition arrives at something that could reasonably be called a portrait. All portraits are necessarily subjective; belaboring that point seems unnecessary.

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