Train in Vain

Lothar Baumgarten's "Carbon" offers a subtle lesson on manifest destiny

Through what he calls "the aroma of geography," he seeks to draw connections between sundry clashing forces, shedding light on the rationalizing thrusts of industrialization in the form of the locomotive as it ran headlong into a wild and untamed landscape. Yet his connections are both direct and indirect. Haunting these images is the history of a slave labor force of imported Chinese men who were deployed to "emancipate" the landscape by building rail lines. Conquering the West meant equally conquering natives. Implicit in Baumgarten's images is the story of impetuous--and often money-grubbing--settlers who violently took on native peoples in what would ultimately be a bloody decimation, the scale of which has been cause for current-day recriminations of genocide.

Baumgarten's message, however, is neither browbeating nor dumbing. Rather, it comes at you through waves of rumination and deliberative viewing, words and images massaging your brain in order to persuade. In keeping with this pattern of slow persuasion, the show initially comes across as tepid and safe. Before the subtle hit of Baumgarten's overarching message, the wordplay on the walls seems to lack poignancy. The references to the railroads through their names seem much more benign than what he's really getting at. Similarly, the black-and-white photographs come across as merely dull-headed journalism. Out of sequence and taken alone, the photographs might fall flat. But persistence pays off with Baumgarten's "Carbon," as the show's real reason for being--its subtle and levelheaded critique of "progress" and "modernity"--emerges in a quietly resounding fashion from the play of word and image.

Lothar Baumgarten's "Southern Pacific Transportation Co. and Amtrak's Sunset Limited Railroad Crossing, Jefferson Davis County, Texas" (1989)
Lothar Baumgarten's "Southern Pacific Transportation Co. and Amtrak's Sunset Limited Railroad Crossing, Jefferson Davis County, Texas" (1989)

Details

is on display through December 5 at the Dallas Museum of Art. Call 214-922-1200.

"Carbon" gives new body and form to the age-old human sentiment of melancholy, bringing to mind the saturnine artist-figure of Albrecht Dürer's "Melancholia" (1514) and the solitary man looking out over the vast unknown in Casper David Friedrich's "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" (1818). In creeping and silent fashion, "Carbon" casts a gloomy pall over the interiors of the DMA--an umbrella of sullenness that can only come from probing introspection. Feelings of Weltschmerz--romantic pessimism and sadness about the evils in the world--emanate from the show. Yet it is a profound sadness that might very well go missed. You can run roughshod through the images, viewing them as but narrative descriptions of heroic old bridges and railways. Or you can take your time, bringing together word, image and idea, pondering each distinct mode of expression and how they interweave to bring home Baumgarten's thesis on the storm and stress of modern life.

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