Q&A with Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo
Richard Misrach, Wall (post and wire mesh), Douglas, Arizona, 2014, inkjet print, © Richard Misrach, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, LA
I imagine you watching some of Guillermo’s music videos and thinking, “I need to get in touch with this guy.” How did this collaborative concept take shape? In 2011, I participated in a pop-up magazine event consisting of a dozen artists, writers, and musicians who were invited to make short presentations of new work on stage before a crowd of 3,000 people. Guillermo and the writer Daniel Alarcon contributed a musical composition by Guillermo made from objects he had recovered from the Texas/Mexico border. I was making an unrelated presentation, but a few years earlier on the California/Mexico border had discovered human effigies dressed in discarded migrant clothing and had photographed them. I was stunned by the similarities of our projects and subsequently invited Guillermo and Daniel to my studio, where I had gathered large-scale prints of my effigy images. We knew next to nothing of each other’s work, but I invited them to collaborate. Eventually, Daniel had to drop out due to other commitments, but Guillermo and I jumped in and never looked back.
Items discarded, lost, and forgotten by people trying to cross into a more promising land. What compelled you to photograph such things? One sees clothing, backpacks, religious items, water bottles, and so forth all along the border. These objects are often referred to as trash, but they are not trash. As Guillermo points out, these items embody, and are the testimony of, the long dangerous travails of those who dared to make the passage.
As Guillermo was unable to travel to the border because of work and family obligations, and I was there a lot, I took on not only photographing but gathering items. That act of working together--of inspiring each other and of helping each other--became a potent symbol of the whole project. We were not only making photographs and music in response to the divide, but our collaborative process represents an alternative model—bridging, not walling up the border.
It’s easy to think, These images are from far away and have nothing to do with me. Are there universal implications for the human condition in these photographs? Who in America is not a descendant of immigrants? Who in America does not interact daily with those who are from other cultures and nations? The border presents complex, difficult issues that will challenge America's national sovereignty for decades to come. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America, whether here legally or illegally, are a vital part of our workforce, daily lives, and culture.
The wall appears in most of your images in this series. In some, it seems that it would take little more than a child’s ability to scramble over sections. Did you move back and forth between countries while you worked? The wall is an empty political symbol. The cliché is, build a 12-foot wall, and they will build a 13-foot ladder. There is a video online of two teenage girls climbing the wall in under eighteen seconds on their first attempt without the aid of a ladder! People go over, around, and even under it. The current walls cost $4-12 million a mile to construct. [Donald] Trump's proposal to add 1,000 miles of new wall, mostly through Texas, is now estimated to cost $25 billion. That taxpayer money would be better spent fighting terrorism and improving education and healthcare. And yes, there are areas where the border wall just ends and I was able to walk around and photograph from the other side.
The U.S.-Mexico border is highly militarized and increasingly monitored by drones. Did working with the knowledge you were being watched influence your creative approach or the images you made? I was always pretty self-conscious photographing. Often I would get to a remote area via Border Patrol access roads. I would inevitably set off ground sensors, but it would often be hours before the BP showed up. Usually, they were pretty civil, sometimes showing me pictures on their iPhones or suggesting where I might get a better shot. Once a woman agent with a large rifle came out of nowhere to stand sentry while I worked, worried that I might be vulnerable to nearby cartel activity. Other times, they could be hostile, check my car and camera bag for heroin, threaten that the cartel would steal my camera, etc.
In the end, however--perhaps because I have been photographing in the American west for over 40 years-I just worked in the painstaking way I always have, mostly with a camera on a tripod. At times, I felt the need to work fast, and I found that my iPhone made a huge difference. Probably a third of the images in the book and many in the exhibit were made with an iPhone, among them images in the 32-foot-long artifact grid and the target-practice shots.
It must have been at times intensely emotional photographing these subjects. Is there a particular moment that stands out in your memory? In Hidalgo County in 2014 I photographed fields of mostly children's items. These were undoubtedly left behind by some of the 52,000 unaccompanied children from Central America, which got a lot of media attention. But really, I have to shut off my emotions while I’m working. For me, the emotional impact usually hits after I am home, going through the pictures.
How do you describe Guillermo’s music? I will paraphrase Guillermo, who has said that conventional instruments allow the musician to impose their will on them. But the instruments he makes from migrant shoes and water bottles or Border Patrol shotgun shells dictate the sound and play the musician, so to speak. The sounds hardly resemble conventional music. On the one hand, they perhaps evoke the primal notion of how and where music first evolved, and on the other, they suggest the struggle and suffering of the people trying to cross the border.
Do you have a favorite work by him in this exhibition? Why? I think the 4 hour and 20 minute Sonic Border is the most powerful work in the whole exhibit. It is played on eight instruments fabricated from migrant artifacts and border patrol objects. Each instrument has a speaker next to it, through which its recorded sounds are played. The long piece is comprised of a series of vignettes of sounds, sometimes a single instrument, sometimes a symphony of all eight at once. The sound can be grating and harsh or lyrical and harmonious. Obviously the normal visitor can't be expected to stay for the full piece—part of the challenge to the listener is to consider the impossible duration--but I encourage people to stay for a while. The longer they stay the more rewarding the experience. The remarkable sounds coaxed from these instruments uncannily and poignantly evoke the border passage.
Guillermo Galindo, Efigie, 2014, immigrant clothing, wood axis, strings, courtesy the artist
When—and how—did you begin creating musical instruments from found objects? My first instrument was an electro-mechanical device called MAIZ (corn) that I made in 2006, and it was built with personal objects from my daily life. It was then that I started calling my instruments “cyber-totemic sonic devices.” In 2011, I came up with the idea of using immigrants’ personal items instead of my own.
You use the term “visual music.” How do you define it? There are two intersecting answers to this question: By visual music I mean music that either evokes particular images, or that has a particular connection with a universe or closely related ideas.
My conception of “visual music” comes from what we call “program music,” which is the idea that music can transmit extra musical narratives by inviting the audience to associate the sounds or the mood of a certain composition with a set of moods, circumstances, or even a specific set of images or a story through memory and collective cultural associations. Romantic composers such as Hector Berlioz, Richard Strauss, and, later, Alexander Scriabin, Modest Mussorgsky, and Claude Debussy experimented with the idea of program music. They wrote program music to evoke the feel and sublime message of particular stories, paintings, or poems. Later, program music morphed into what we know today as “film music.”
My other idea of visual music comes from music notation or the translations of otherwise “abstract symbols” in a page into actual music. Traditional Western music notation has evolved to the point that, in some cases, the performer reading and translating a musical score must navigate the limits between traditional music code and the interpretation of concepts through visual elements purposely placed in different parts of the page. Many twentieth- and twenty-first-century scores by authors such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Earle Brown, and Brian Eno use visual language similar to the one that painting, photography, and other visual arts use to convey their message.
You are a Mexican-born U.S. citizen, so you have the unique perspective of being from both sides of the border. How did this influence your creative approach for this project? There is a special “there is not here, here” moment when that “foreign” country where you have lived for many years finally becomes your home. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in the middle of the intersection, trapped between two countries. We are finally able to see both their similarities and their contradictions. Richard and I found that neutral zone, a place with no walls where the exchange of ideas and dialogue can flow back and forth.
You built the sonic devices in this show. How did the structure of conventional instruments inform your creations? Human beings have been creating instruments for hundreds of thousands of years. There is extremely valuable information about musical instruments that we have gathered regarding acoustics, purpose, design, modes of playing, and quality of sound. My instrument building came from the knowledge and valuable concepts of many cultures.
You can almost hear the vast emptiness in some of Richard’s images. What part does silence play in your compositions? Silence is the essence of emptiness, the negative space that defines the figure in the visual arts. In Richard’s photographs, this is the landscape where living things exist or existed. In the case of music, silence is the empty space where sounds will soon be. Silence underlines the unsaid and the unknown. Both in music and in speech, silence is the space between sounds, the necessary pause to stop and reflect. Richard’s photographs provide the space to be filled with sound and to amplify their silence.
You recreated an effigy for the exhibition, one of several scarecrows in emigrant’s clothing that Richard found in an isolated canyon along the border with California. What do you suppose these figures are meant to symbolize or do? Neither Richard nor I know exactly what these figures symbolize. Perhaps it is better to leave it that way. But the position of the arms in these figures reminds me of the position one adopts when being searched. They also remind me of that technique one uses when confronting a dangerous animal in which one raises the arms in order to seem bigger.
How did the unknown experiences of those who lost these items, the “invisible victims of migration” you have called them, figure into your compositions and constructions? Each object tells an imaginary story. My instrument fabrication is something between forensic archeology and animistic spirituality. Each object is evidence of presence. Each instrument tells the story of the person it belonged to.
How do you characterize Richard’s photographs? For me, Richard’s photographs are huge symphonic landscapes of form, texture, and light. They entail a unique beauty that provides a comfortable space for environmental awareness and socio-political dialogue.
Do you have a favorite image by him in this exhibition? Why? There are several: I like the photograph Wall, East of Nogales, Arizona, where the undulating wall appears and disappears behind the hills as incomplete melodic contours. I was inspired by the desolation of his photograph Agua #16, Carrizo Creek, California for my composition “Skeletal Remains” and the score I call “lone tank.” I also chose his image * (post and wire mesh fence) Douglas, Arizona* to be in the Sonic Border room of the exhibit because it has this feeling of an uncertain, endless horizon in which anything can happen. The movement of the photograph drives us into that foggy place where everything tends to disappear.
Photographer Doris Ulmann came from an affluent white New York City family. She took teacher training with photographer Lewis Hine at the Ethical Culture School and subsequently studied psychology and law at Columbia University. She also studied photography with Clarence H. White, a founding member of the Photo-Secession movement known for teaching the Pictorialist style.
Ulmann collaborated with novelist Julia Peterkin on a book project titled Roll, Jordan, Roll (New York: R.O. Ballou, 1933). The book focuses on the lives of former slaves and their descendants on a plantation in the Gullah coastal region of South Carolina. Peterkin, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Scarlet Sister Mary (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928), was born in South Carolina and raised by a black nursemaid who taught her the Gullah dialect. She married the heir to Lang Syne, a 2,000-acre cotton plantation, which became the setting for Roll, Jordan, Roll. Ulmann began photographing there in 1929.
Doris Ulmann (1884-1934), [People seated at church service], 1933, Photogravure
Doris Ulmann (1884-1934), [Baptism], 1933, Photogravure
Roll, Jordan, Roll is titled after the spiritual written by English Methodist leader Charles Wesley in the 18th century which became well-known among slaves in the United States during the 19th century. Appropriated as a coded message for escape, by the end of the American Civil War it had become known through much of the eastern United States. In the 20th century it helped inspire the blues, and it remains a staple in gospel music.
Doris Ulmann (1884-1934), [Girl standing in doorway], 1933, Photogravure
Doris Ulmann (1884-1934), [Two boys riding a mule], 1933, Photogravure
Roll, Jordan, Roll was illustrated with 90 photogravure plates made from Ulmann’s large-format negatives. Although they comprise an amazing ethnographic study, today Ulmann’s Pictorialist aesthetic seems a strange choice for making documentary images. The hazy, soft-focus photographs lend a sentimental, nostalgic impression that belies the underlying exploitative history of her subjects.
We never know who will enter our lives and make an indelible impact. One of my best friends, someone who has always been there for me, is a long-deceased ostensible curmudgeon, arguably one of America’s finest painters. He goes by the name of Winslow Homer (1836-1910). Today is his birthday and I want to pay tribute to him.
Homer was the subject of my graduate work, specifically his scenes of rescue at sea and their ties to boxing, bodybuilding, and the power of water. The painting Undertow, 1886, at the Clark Art Institute has long had significance to me in times of turmoil. I am proud to return to it time and again to see new things and to write about it. It never ceases to amaze, confuse, and inspire me.
Homer gets a bum rap for being isolated, not that outgoing, and a hermit. He moved to the shores of Prout’s Neck, Maine, seemingly to escape life and company. And yet, he loved his family greatly, particularly his brother Charles, and Prout’s was the family compound.
At the Amon Carter, we have this great painting, Crossing the Pasture, 1871-72,
that seems to celebrate the bond between two brothers. Homer painted it after the Civil War, which pitted brothers against each other. I can’t help but see it as a reflection of Winslow’s relationship with Charles as well as a turn to simpler times after the difficulties of all Homer must have seen as a war correspondent for Harper’s.
In his own words, Homer told his friend the printer Louis Prang, “I deny that I am a recluse as is generally understood by that term. Neither am I an unsociable hog.” He engaged in puns, beginning that letter with the joke “But what’s your hurry…said the King of Russia.” Get it? Though Homer put a sign outside his studio that warned of snakes and mice to deter visitors from dropping by, I can’t help but think I would have enjoyed his company. After all, who doesn’t like someone who’s hard to get, with a dry wit?
I don’t believe I am Homer’s only friend. In an attempt to see how his relationships could have resulted in cross pollination of artistic ideas, I even made him a Fakebook page that allows us to think about his art differently both as influenced by and as influential to his friends.
Though this friendship seems a bit one sided—Homer will never bring me soup when I’m sick or watch my cat—art historians get a tremendous sense of satisfaction from research and study. And part of what we strive to do is to bring these artists to life for our visitors.
So, to my friend Homer…a very happy birthday.
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
Because of the sheer size of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s collection and the nature of objects that can deteriorate with exposure to light, such as artworks on paper, only a small portion of the entire collection can be seen at any given time. In addition to artworks, the museum collections include photographic negatives, historical ephemera, library books, and archive materials—hundreds of thousands of individual items, all of which are cataloged and stored for long-term preservation.
As the senior photographer for the museum, I get to see many items that rarely see the light of day. To bring these “dark collections” to light, I’ve been charged with selecting such artworks from our vaults and presenting them on the museum’s Tumblr page—making them available for all to enjoy. Be sure to tune in to our Tumblr page, where there will be a new work presented each week. Here’s a bit of a primer—a couple of items from deep in the vaults that have a connection to each other.
Ralph R. Doubleday (1881-1958), Yakami [sic] Canutt Bulldogger Deluxe, early twentieth century, photographic postcard
The photographic postcard above by rodeo photographer Ralph R. Doubleday shows Yakima Canutt (1895–1986) posing in the rodeo ring. Canutt was known for bulldogging and bronc riding and won the saddle-bronc competition at the Fort Worth rodeo three years in a row from 1921 to 1923, probably around the time this undated photo was taken. He went on to a career as an actor, stuntman, and action film director.
Canutt was hired to ride and act in Hollywood westerns in 1923 and appeared in several silent films. But when the movies transitioned to sound around 1928, Canutt chose to specialize in action and stunt work. He met actor John Wayne while performing as his stunt double in 1932. The two became friends and worked on techniques for stunts and on-screen fighting. Canutt was the inspiration for Wayne's trademark mannerisms, his drawling enunciation, and hip-rolling walk. John Wayne said, "I spent weeks studying the way Yakima Canutt walked and talked. He was a real cowhand."
Both men worked on John Ford's 1939 film Stagecoach, which features Canutt's daring stunt work running across the horses' rigging to jump astride the lead horse and take control of the runaway team.
Screen shot of Yakima doubling John Wayne doing wagon team stunt from John Ford's Stagecoach, 1939
The museum collection includes this screen-printed poster for Stagecoach.
Unknown, Stagecoach, after 1939, screen print
Although Wayne had been acting in Hollywood for ten years, his performance in Stagecoach proved to be his breakthrough role, leading to a legendary career. Stagecoach is considered one of the most influential films ever made. Orson Welles argued that it was a perfect textbook of film-making and claimed to have watched it more than forty times in preparation for the making of Citizen Kane. . . . See you next week on Tumblr!
In my group of closest friends, I count many overachievers in the crafting and project-realization vein. For a still-life themed Halloween party a few years back, one among this crew sewed her own large clam shell out of shimmering fabric and lined it with an opalescent interior so that she could be an oyster on a half shell. I decided to take an easier route by emulating the trompe l’oeil masters of American painting, Harnett and Peto, with my own half-hearted attempt at their signature style of assembling paper goods on a painted wooden backdrop.
Compare the Amon Carter’s John F. Peto, A Closet Door, 1904-06, with my homage. Of course, my friend the oyster received all the congratulatory remarks.
In keeping with their reputations for preparedness, I suspect that most of the people I know have already assembled their Pinterest boards with costume ideas or have planned to make spooky breadsticks with painted almond fingernails as detached finger treats. For those of you more, shall we say, normal folks…we offer this inspirational guide to last minute Halloween costume ideas inspired by the Amon Carter’s collection. They are vetted by the least crafty among our staff.
Karl Struss, [Barbara Struss in costume], 1925
Putting a bag on your head or cutting eye holes in a sheet are the go-to costumes for uninspired people. In this case, you may put a bag on your head and tell people you are evoking the work of master photographer and cinematographer Karl Struss. Voila!
Supplies: paper bag, markers, scissors
Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939,
There are plenty of costume aficionados out there who will create their own versions of Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic. Dare to be different with your own take on one of Wood’s other iconic works, Parson Weems’ Fable. George Washington’s head here is modeled after Gilbert Stuart’s rendition of the first president. It was once remarked that if George Washington were to come back to life, he better look like Stuart’s painted portrait or else he would go unrecognized!
Supplies: White shirt, blue pants, axe, white hair powder and black ribbon*
*May substitute with handmade George Washington mask using $1 bill and copier
Frederic Remington, The Sergeant, 1904
I personally find those people who paint themselves with metallic paint, stand still in public places, and then scare innocent pedestrians half to death by engaging in sudden movement highly terrifying, so feel free to skip the bronze face paint!
Supplies: floppy hat, neckerchief , fake mustache…if needed
William M. Harnett, Attention Company!, 1878
Though I wouldn’t be able to make an origami crane, I can certainly fold a paper hat. So can you! If you have forgotten how, there are many instructional Youtube videos.
Supplies: newspaper, broom handle, khaki coat, and some origami skills
William J. McCloskey, Wrapped Oranges, 1889
I have been known to call this painted rendition of the tissue paper used to protect oranges as they were shipped across the country “exuberant” for the way the flamboyant crinkled coverings make the oranges festive and celebratory. People will probably assume you are a cross between a pumpkin and a mummy, but you can clarify.
Supplies: orange clothing and tissue paper
If all else fails…might I suggest Thomas Eakins’ Swimming,1885? **
**The costume ideas in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the beliefs and attitudes of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art is not responsible for the legal ramifications of copying dollar bills, nor does it endorse public nudity. This disclaimer is meant with good humor and is in no way legally proper. Happy Halloween!!!
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
When a song that we’ve heard on the radio gets stuck in our heads and we sing it all day long, we call it an ear worm. Sometimes art historians develop fixations on particular works of art that dwell in our psyches—posing riddles and conundrums. Should we call the phenomenon something more glamorous than a brain or eye worm?
I had the honor of fielding questions on Twitter for #AskaCurator day—an occasion in which curators all over the world respond to queries from the Twitterverse. An exchange with Waco’s Dr. Pepper Museum led to their interest in knowing whether we had any works in our collection featuring Dr. Pepper.
Alas, though Coke advertising figures prominently in city scenes by many of our well-known photographers, Dr. Pepper is not represented in our collection.
I did, however, stumble across this gem, which is the current subject of my fixation:
Artist unknown, Cold Soda Water from the Matthews Apparatus, 1800s, 1969.186
This nineteenth-century lithograph in our collection is emblematic of one of the reasons I love being an art historian. The whole thing seems pretty innocuous on first inspection, right? The ad is meant to communicate that the “Matthews Apparatus” can provide the coldest carbonated water in a highly pressurized tank. What happens when we try to put ourselves in the mindset of its original intended audience?
A little digging reveals that John Matthews (1808–1870) was the man heralded for the popularity of carbonated drinks in America. Known as the “Soda Fountain King,” Matthews patented his “apparatus for charging water with carbon dioxide gas” in 1832. Though others had preceded him, their devices were known to explode. Matthews incorporated a pressure valve that ensured his tanks were the safest. He was responsible for countertop dispensers used in pharmacy counters to provide beverages to the general consumer, water carts, room-sized tanks, bottling tables, the soda fountains themselves, and even the first flavorings. The tank was patented in 1872, and it says so in the print, so we can get a better idea of the date of this object. Barely visible in the jet of water coming from the larger canister is the Matthews company insignia of a cherub using a monkey wrench to defend the soda from a marauding bear. Fascinating!
Here’s what sticks in the art historian’s mind, though. I had the great privilege to study shipwreck imagery as a curatorial sidekick for the exhibition "Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and The Life Line" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A little knowledge turns this innocent ad into something quite scandalous.
A nineteenth-century person lived in fear of shipwreck. The seas were unpredictable, and for much of the century, lifesaving brigades were scarce. The biggest killer was hypothermia from being subjected to the frigid Atlantic. Imagery proliferated with frozen maidens in chemises who had perished from exposure. Shipwreck stories in popular periodicals were the major news stories of disaster of their time.
The one saving grace in the event of a wreck could be a rope shot from a canon-like device called a “Lyle gun” from shore to the sinking ship. The rope was used to bear a rescue mechanism that could ferry passengers one at a time to safety, if all went according to plan.
So, with that background information, can we see where the advertiser has gone wrong? Certainly, to herald the freezing nature of the water was in poor taste. Not to mention that in place of a lifeline shot from a shore crew we have a highly ineffectual pressurized stream of water! I suppose the print boldly conveys the distinctiveness of the Matthews apparatus—but yikes!
This is not the end of my pondering, however. The print in question entered our collection in 1969. I wondered what would have prompted its acquisition. Figuring it was part of a batch of prints purchased as a single lot, I wanted to try to ascertain what treasure our past curators were seeking when this print came aboard as a likely stowaway.
I think I have the answer.
This is our marvelous painting by Carl Wimar, showing the dramatic abduction of Daniel Boone’s daughter.
Carl Wimar (1828–1862), The Abduction of Boone's Daughter by the Indians, 1855–56, oil on canvas, 1965.1
In the same batch of purchases that included the Matthews apparatus picture, we find this advertising gem.
The Father of Waters, after 1855, chromolithograph, 1969.191
It’s a chromolithograph produced by Anheuser Busch in which Boone’s daughter is replaced by beer products. My art historical colleague Mark Thistlethwaite teaches a section of a course on inappropriate advertising in which this print plays a starring role. When I mentioned my shock at the impropriety of our Matthews soda ad, he told me about this Wimar riff. How amazing to discover that this was probably the Holy Grail that our curator sought all along, with the Matthews apparatus an unexpected bonus.
The good news is, now that I have shared all of this with you, I am likely finally ready to move on to the next brain worm…but maybe I’ll drink a refreshing beverage first and raise a grateful glass to Matthews!
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
The entry wall to an exhibition can often reveal a curator’s bias. If we are not adhering to a chronological or strict thematic arrangement, the first object you see might simply be a secret personal favorite.
Such is the case with the first wall of Tales from the American West: The Rees-Jones Collection, now on view in the museum’s galleries. The show features a hearty selection of romantic, nostalgic, and virtuosic renditions of artistic imaginings of the mythic West—from bronze wranglers to vibrant oil portraits of Taos denizens.
Maybe it’s because my attempts at watercolor painting look something like this
Maggie Adler, Amateurish Watercolor, 2015
that I have become quite partial to Thomas Moran’s dazzling color combinations in Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1895, which I have placed front and center at the beginning of the exhibition.
Thomas Moran (1837–1926), Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1895, watercolor on paper, Rees-Jones Collection, 2013.15.1
Some passages remain discreet areas of unmixed color, some portions blend and bleed masterfully. Turquoise practically vibrates off the paper, and we have a palpable sense of the sublime vistas that Moran encountered. The scenes he witnessed made it into his sketchbooks as preliminary sketches that he revisited back in his studio, relying on his own sometimes quite poetic color notations as his guide. Nowhere in this work can we find a grungy, muddy soup or over-moistened, rumpled passage of paper—as are always to be found in my own creations.
How is this accomplished? With a great dose of patience. I have recently been educated in the intricacies of making watercolor. Everything plays a role, from the texture of the paper to the brushes used to the manipulation of water to the artist’s instinct to wait for the exact moment in which the paint is just dry enough to apply another layer but not so dry as to prove unmalleable.
While it is true that watercolor can be unforgiving—once the paint is applied it is not easily covered or removed—the virtuoso watercolorist has tricks up a sleeve from sponging to masking to scraping to even using stale bread to absorb excess paint.
As much as Moran intended for us to be in awe of this landscape, I am in awe of the technique that translated his view into the marvelous work on paper we have the privilege to feature in our galleries.
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
Laura Wilson’s photographs have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers, including The New Yorker, GQ, and Vanity Fair. Her work has been the subject of four books, the latest titled Avedon at Work (2003), which documents one of the twentieth century’s great photographers, Richard Avedon, at work on one of the same century’s great projects, In the American West (1985). Her latest exhibition, That Day: Laura Wilson, was organized by John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs at the museum, and opens September 5 at the Amon Carter. Wilson recently spoke with us...
How did being such a close student of Avedon’s process and work inform your own? I‘m naturally inclined, as Dick was, to be extremely interested in people and being responsive to their condition, their plight, their wonder. I also think I have an almost unreasonable desire to record what is before me. Dick’s creative process was an enormous influence. It wasn’t that we ever spoke of f-stops or shutter speeds, but we constantly talked about the emotion expressed on a person’s face and the way in which they stood or held themselves. A portrait is a collaboration. A strong portrait, a memorable portrait, isn’t necessarily about an individual’s beauty or handsomeness; it is accomplished when the photographer and subject work together, often without words or direction, to make an image that reveals something truthful about the human condition.
Is it possible to photograph in the American West outside its entrenched and overpowering sense of myth? The challenge is to take this entrenched myth and not be overpowered by it, but to be inspired and to expand upon it. Certainly the photographs of the men on the Y-6 Ranch reinforce the myth, but it is my hope that the portrait of the women and my recollection of their conversations expand the conventional view of ranch life. On another subject, perhaps an attempt to expand the myth is what drew me to fighter pilots in Fallon, Nevada. Are they the contemporary extension of the lone hero, the moral gunfighter? Or I may be working to counter the myth, as in the photographs along the Frontera. Dog fighting and cockfighting certainly rebut the myth of frontier righteousness. It seems critical to me for anyone working in the West to have this most American of myths always in your eye line, to constantly work to counter or extend it.
So often a viewer wonders about a subject in a photograph. This is the case for me with your beautiful image Emma. What can you tell us about her and “that day” you photographed her? Emma was a spirited, beautiful girl with a strong personality who lived, and still does live, in the Montana Hutterite colony in which she was born. She was 16 or 17 the summer afternoon this photograph was taken. I had known her for several years. She stood out among all the other young women in the colony because she was so pretty and lively and humorous. She had finished school by then, as Hutterites do after they complete the eighth grade. The evening I photographed her, she had worked during the day along with the other unmarried girls in the colony vegetable garden and helped prepare meals for the seventy or so colony members. After her chores were completed, the evening was cool and we walked up on a hill above the colony. She stood facing the waning light as the wind caught her dress in the breeze. Emma is married now with children of her own, older than she was when I took this photograph. I haven't seen her for fifteen years.
What is the biggest challenge for the documentary photographer? There is, of course, the question of subject matter. What is fresh? That is the challenge. Have you been astute or lucky enough to find something that's never been photographed before? Or can you bring new insight to a more familiar subject? Then, there is the body of work of the greatest of documentary photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson. His photographs stand like a beacon of accomplishment to all photographers. He spent his life walking and looking and photographing with a little Leica camera and made the most brilliant observations of the geometry and the emotion and the wonder of life. It is his work that we must all measure ourselves against.
Can you tell us about a shot you still regret missing? I was in Kansas City seventeen years ago in a small, dingy room off the main waiting area of the Greyhound Bus Station. A middle-aged woman, neatly dressed, sat at the desk of the station manager. She told him she had no more money for the next leg of her journey. She quietly spoke of her need to get home. Her mother was dying, alone with no one to help. I knew the woman was about to cry. I had to turn away. I couldn't bear to hear the click of the shutter against the profound grief of her voice.
What kind of camera do you use? Until two years ago, I shot everything with film. I used Tri-X rated at 320. I used my Hasselblad for portraits and my Nikon F-5 for reportage. Now, I use a Nikon D-800 with a 24, 35, 85, and 105 lens and then 2 zoom lenses: 14-24 and 24-70. This Nikon is a great camera. It's so smart I could stay home in bed, send the camera out on its own, and it would come back to the studio with great photographs.
What is a “salon hang,” and what is its relevance in our art culture today? These are questions raised by our current one-gallery installation of Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre (1831–33). On the opposite wall from Morse’s painting, which measures seven by nine feet, Maggie Adler, the curator of the space, has displayed a number of related works from our collection in a salon-style hang.
Amon Carter curator Maggie Adler did a salon hang from the collection to coincide with the display of Morse’s painting in the same gallery
A salon-style hang places pictures in groups of different sizes where the works are placed alongside, above, and below each other. The historical narrative is that during the late nineteenth century in France, the idea of hanging art differently became the fashion. The salon hang became the established pattern at the annual Paris Salon, and it suggested a hierarchy. Works by artists of importance were hung lower on the wall, while those by less important artists were hung higher.
While the artists known as the Impressionists recognized the importance of being shown in the annual Salon in order to be validated, they chose a different way to display their art. For them, art was not about “reputation” but rather about “seeing,” and so rather than stacking the art to the ceiling, they hung their works along the same linear line, all on the same level, giving each work ample space to be seen and understood.
Many art historians believe that this action and others by Cassatt, Degas, Pissarro, and the rest of the Impressionists changed the modern art world across the globe. It certainly changed the way art is hung institutionally. Still today, rarely do we see works of art hung in a museum as they are displayed in Morse’s painting. But there seems to be a discernible shift taking place; an Internet search of “salon style hang” offers up plenty of evidence of a trend toward salon hanging, which allows individuals and collectors to maximize their wall space for the display of art. I have also noticed a similar shift in the galleries of living artists, particularly those working outside the art world’s heavily networked centers.
Salon-style hanging allows individuals and collectors to maximize their wall space for the display of art
Does the salon-style hang in this day actually invert the historical sense of hierarchy present in the nineteenth century? Where artists in a community might come from multiple backgrounds, trained and untrained, the salon style captures a consciousness that is open and inviting. As an artist friend of mine shared recently: “Stand close to just one piece; step back, and with the works around it, the piece becomes part of a collection; one more step back reveals the collective consciousness of the artists of our times and how they are expressing themselves! The entire wall becomes a piece of art.”
Born in Germany but raised in Texas, Esther Pearl Watson holds an MA from the California Institute of the Arts and teaches at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Her monumental canvas Pasture Cows Crossing Indian Creek is on view in the museum’s Atrium through May 30, 2016. Watson combines memory and imagination in her paintings to tell stories from her childhood. While in Fort Worth for the installation of Pasture Cows, she took time to sit down with us.
Your father spent his life building all manner of spacecraft in the many front yards of your youth, and much of your work includes flying saucers and rockets and other hovering space forms. What compels you to make this aspect of your past such an integral part of your work? Memory painters often paint their memories as ideal. I think it is interesting to disrupt that trope by showing less-than-perfect memories.
The artist speaking with members of the museum inside her studio in L.A.; the painting behind her is Pasture Cows in process
Is your work partly a means for processing through your personal set of childhood memories? No. I’m a skilled painter imitating a de-skilled visual language. I’m more interested in what this painting is doing and not doing. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills resemble a range of photos from B movies but are completely fictitious. While Sherman is in every image, portraying female characters in film, the work is not about her but about the viewer and what we project onto her image. We never really get to know Cindy Sherman, but hopefully we better understand ourselves.
Pasture Cows may feel emotionally real, but it’s a careful construction. It’s true that elements of my biography are found in the painting; my granddad is from Comanche, for example, and my dad built half-finished flying saucers in his garage. But I have no memory of a pink flying saucer sighting, and I never hunted specifically for the Old Civilian Fort. So why does this painting feel real? Whose childhood memories are we processing when we look at Pasture Cows?
My work looks like outsider art, with its blobby figures and pencil smudges; but I’m not an outsider artist. I’m not trying to be mistaken for one, just as Cindy Sherman is not trying to pass as a Hollywood star. I’m more interested in the terms and definitions we use in the art world. What is this painting exactly? Insider art? Faux folk art?
In addition to painting you write and illustrate graphic novels. Where did the idea for your series Unlovable come from? It’s based on a diary I found in a gas station bathroom. I like that the main character makes the same mistakes we all do, but it’s in hindsight that we can laugh about it.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career? Becoming an artist!
Both your husband and daughter are artists. Do you collaborate? Yes. More often, we work side by side. Our home often feels like and artists’ residency.
You often use glitter in your work, including in Pasture Cows. Does it have significance other than an aesthetic one? When my daughter was young she wore a lot of glittery clothing. I use glitter as a reference to her.
Esther in front of her painting shortly after it was installed in the museum's Atrium
Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” Some visitors might look at your painting and think it appears raw or amateurish. What would you say to them? I agree with Picasso. I can paint realistic, but those paintings simply imitate. I’m not interested in reproducing imagery I can capture with my camera. Some people feel a sense of accomplishment when they can render realistic. Some people give up painting when they cannot paint realistic. What I’m doing is purposely making my work look like I can’t paint. It’s not easy to do because if it’s done wrong, then my work will feel insincere. I do leave hints that my work comes from an educated place. You can tell by the content and can see that I’m using balanced compositions and complex color harmonies.
There are several narratives occurring in Pasture Cows. Can you speak to the more significant ones? My granddad working with the fence taught me about the payoff of hard work. The saucer is based on my dad’s dreams of returning to Italy. The pink glitter is a reference to my daughter.
What is the one work of art that everyone should see in person? I’m too humble to assume everyone’s taste is similar to my own. For me, I was wondering around Turin, Italy, with my dad and husband. We walked into the Santuario Basilica La Consolata and found floor-to-ceiling ex-votos [a votive offering to a saint]. They were crudely drawn, life-changing moments in people’s lives: when a mother was hit by a train or a son was shot in war. These were moments when miracles happened. Moments when people felt blessed and watched over.
There’s a dollop of paint in the sky above the flying buzzard in Pasture Cows. It’s intentional, but why? I like what people project onto it. There are lots of blobs in the painting, but when they’re out of place we give them special meaning. That blob shows us that we’re all projecting stories in everything we see.