Local Yokels

"6.10.94, Texas Coast," a gelatin silver photograph with translucent oils, is one of 16 works in Ann Stautberg's show at the MAC.
Ann Stautberg

For contemporary artists living and working outside the world's art centers, regionalism has long been a high-risk, low-reward career path. To choose it is to work in a style whose heyday is long gone, to opt for a future with built-in limitations, to abandon all hope of ever being The Next Hot Thing, to be consigned forever to Sotheby's arcade. There are good and historic reasons for this state of affairs, many of them painted in the 1930s by Thomas Hart Benton or one of his nativist disciples. Some of these reasons are also visible in the form of mindless arts boosterism, cheerleading for the "local art scene," and other fatuous forms of discourse. Still others are circulating in the lesser work of the "Dallas Nine" and bad WPA murals of shirtless workers, art that celebrates backward values with a false, hokey twang.

But regionalism has its good points too. The best regional artists work in a grand, if old-fashioned, American tradition, a tradition that dates back to the 19th century. They enjoy a built-in base of support from local collectors and institutions. They have shows at the MAC. And, especially if they happen to live in a place like Texas, they have a lifetime of inspiration, documenting what's unique, wonderful, terrible, and downright weird about a people, a place, a moment in time. The best tend to fall for the same ruse Texans have been falling for over these past 175 years--they fall for the land, for its hardscrabble beauty, for the same strain of Stockholm Syndrome as many an otherwise sensible Texan before them.

To be a good regional artist is to walk a razor's edge, to seek the sublime without much hope of real recognition, and to maintain eternal vigilance against bad taste and sloppy sentiment. Fortunately, there are some artists who manage the trick--artists such as Ann Stautberg, whose work over the past decade is now the subject of a show at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary.


Texas Coast: A Decade of Images, by Ann Stautberg, runs through February 25 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Call (214) 953-1212.

The Private Wayne Thiebaud runs through March 3 at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art. Call (214) 969-9410.

At 51, Stautberg is one of the MAC's usual suspects, an artist who has spent three decades producing work rooted in a sense of place. Educated at TCU and the University of Dallas, Stautberg prefers the medium of the hand-colored photograph, an updated twist on the photos of grandma and grandpa hanging on many a family wall. Instead of focusing on Great Uncle Frank, though, Stautberg trains her lens on empty expanses of the Texas coast and unpeopled domestic interiors.

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The results, which she blows up to astonishing scale, are at once a throwback and stunningly modern. The majority of works in the show, aptly titled Texas Coast: A Decade of Images, are in fact lonely shots of shoreline, gulf, and clouds. Stautberg records the precise moment of exposure and provides vague notes of place in titles like "6.2.99, A.M., Texas Coast, #1." The pictures, printed in sizes as large as 5 by 7 feet and hung unframed on the wall, have a Whitmanesque, documenting-this-great-land, song-of-myself quality, describing not only the landscape but Stautberg's own reactions to what she sees and experiences.

The scale and the hyper-realism are at first disturbing, producing a sense of voyeurism, of peering into private lives, of being confronted with too much truth. As with Matthew Brady's Civil War photographs, we want to avert our gaze. It is the same sense of discomfort that an earlier generation of Americans experienced viewing the work of Thomas Eakins, the great realist painter. Like Eakins, Stautberg is a lover of the specific and the factual; we believe we could find this precise expanse of shore, this precise bathroom sink, could perhaps even compute the time of day from the angle of sun and shadows.

But Eakins and Stautberg are at cross-purposes, using precisely opposite approaches to make the same point. Whereas Eakins set out to make painting--an inherently fictive medium--tell the truth, Stautberg is setting out to make photography tell lies. Like Eakins, she recognizes the impossibility of disentangling sight from memory. "If a man makes a hot day," Eakins once explained, "he makes it like a hot day he once saw or is seeing; if a sweet face, a face he once saw or which he imagines from old memories or parts of memories and his knowledge, and he combines and combines."

Stautberg, in turn, reduces and reduces, filtering and choosing reality. The artist may be a photographer, but she is certainly not a camera. Instead of the truth, she gives us a Galveston of stunning beauty, free from tar, dead fish, and Portuguese man-of-wars. As if this weren't subjective enough, Stautberg uses oils to supply the role of memory, to provide a wash of emotion, to idealize her subject. Thus she injects a pronounced melancholy into many of the pictures, paeans to the forlorn Texas landscape. She creates the sky full of threatening beauty, emphasizes the tornadic green atmosphere through contrasting primary colors. It is she who loves the landscape, who argues convincingly for the Texas coast, who persuades us, for a split second, to forget what we know.  

The resulting photos are full of sentiment, even nostalgia, but are never sweet or cloying; in short, they succeed in walking that fine line of emotion typical of the best regional art. Looking at the results, one could almost imagine the Muse has accepted Walt Whitman's famous invitation to "migrate from Greece and Ionia...Placard 'Removed' and 'To Let' on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus," settling instead for a small beach house on Galveston Island. Let's hope she doesn't notice the jellyfish anytime soon.

Across town, a great regional artist is finally getting his due. Forty years after he made his big splash in the art world, Wayne Thiebaud is still turning out California landscapes and teaching the occasional class at UC-Davis. Now 80, Thiebaud has lived and painted through the American half-century; he's seen it all, from abstract expressionism to the art world's slide into increasingly faddish and short-lived cycles of The Next Great Movement: earthworks, graffiti, neo-expressionism, neo-geo, film stills, pickled sheep, and so forth. Now he's getting the recognition he deserves. This year he was the subject of a major retrospective, a well-reviewed exhibition containing more than 75 major paintings that traveled to San Francisco, to Fort Worth's Modern Art Museum (see "Gotta Be Me," October 5), and, as of next month, to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.; finally, it will travel to the Whitney Museum of Art. The show has garnered universal praise, earning lengthy and respectful notices in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the International Herald-Tribune. As if this weren't enough, next month a show of 60 prints by the artist will go on view at Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. All this critical re-evaluation of a painter, and a painter of recognizable figures, at that. Regionalists, painters, and iconoclasts everywhere should take note, and hope.

Thiebaud made his commitment to representation early on. As Thiebaud has explained it, he recognized that ab ex had taken abstraction just about as far as it could go, and that the future of painting was the past. In the early '60s, he began painting pies and cakes, simple forms grounded in his own fascination with food rituals and his delight in the absurd. He thought it would be the death of his career as a serious artist; instead, he became the art world's "it" boy. His fast-food, pop-culture paintings became icons, snapped up by collectors and hung in the most prestigious museums alongside Jasper Johns' flags and targets, Claes Oldenburg's household-object sculpture, and Andy Warhol's soup cans.

But Thiebaud has always been fiercely independent, and he disliked much of what he saw of the art world, particularly the pop art movement, which he said had "some of the aspects of a 'racket.'" Perhaps as a reaction, by the mid-'60s, Thiebaud turned to painting in critically disfavored genres--turning first to the human figure, and then, in the late '60s, to landscape. By the early '70s, Thiebaud had bought a small house in San Francisco and begun a 20-year cycle of cityscapes, abandoning the peculiarities and rituals of food prep for streets that buckled and plunged and cars that looked as if they must have suspended gravity.

The work was masterful--and largely ignored by the East Coast establishment. Curators have suggested Thiebaud was the victim of "modernist biases" against realism, landscape, and regionalism. To his credit, Thiebaud never cared. He taught. He painted. He had shows. And over 30 years, he has created a body of work that is a paean not only to California but to neo-Emersonian individualism.

Some 32 of Thiebaud's minor works are now on view at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art. In light of all the critical recognition, it's a big coup for Pillsbury and Peters, which used the show to launch its newly expanded galleries. That said, many will find the show disappointing, a hodgepodge of slight works from a great painter--the kind of show that is becoming something of a Pillsbury and Peters leitmotif.

The show is heavy on graphic examples of Thiebaud's still-lifes from the '60s and '70s. Some of the most interesting work is underrepresented or not represented at all; for example, Thiebaud's late-'60s figurative work is represented by a lone nude. A smattering of land- and cityscapes show how Thiebaud plays with perspective and with topographic oddities, standing streets vertically alongside buildings and hills or depicting cows walking along the ridge of a typical California hill. The graphic work and drawings emphasize how Thiebaud reduces forms to their essence, to rectangles of building and stripes of highway, to the very edge of abstraction. Whether working in gouache or in acid on copper plates, Thiebaud draws and paints like the master he is. Alas, those who missed the MAMFW show will get little sense of his virtuoso paint-handling, one of his signature traits.

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