Every Picture Has a Story

By Mark Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 17, 2007

Earl Cunningham had a special knack for depicting how the colors of sea and sky emulate each other, sometimes melding to obliterate the horizon. As for his other gifts -- well, the folk artist's work is the subject of a major show, "Earl Cunningham's America," at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. So there must be more to his work, even if it's not visible to the unprepared eye.

Skeptics of intellectual contemporary art sometimes complain that it's too dependent on theory and text, and can't really be understood simply by looking. Cunningham, who lived from 1893 to 1977, is not quite contemporary, and his art is far from intellectual. Yet his work is also dependent on an explanatory narrative, even if it's only his biography.

The "primitive artist" (according to his business card) was born in Maine and worked as a tinker and sailor. In 1939 he settled permanently in St. Augustine, Fla., where he ran a curio shop that displayed his paintings -- although he usually refused to sell them. His occasional diary entries indicate that he felt persecuted; his death was a suicide.

All of Cunningham's paintings are landscapes, and they conflate the terrain of craggy New England and sea-level Florida. The latter's flatness better suits his limited skills, which don't include perspective or modeling to show distance and depth. Painted mostly on fiberboard, the artist's childlike views have a peaceable-kingdom vibe and no sense of historical period. Steamers and schooners share the same waters, as do the Viking longboats and Seminole canoes that represent the semi-mythic past of, respectively, Maine and Florida. These are the worlds, real and imagined, of Cunningham's youth.

The academic term for art that combines nostalgia and fantasy this way is "memory painting," but it's not clear that Cunningham rates an art-history genus. The best of these 50 landscapes are distinguished by vivid colors and epic horizontal formats. (The wider the better; the more conventionally proportioned paintings seem especially stolid.) Yet Cunningham's paintings, with their dubious sense of scale and crudely rendered details, don't reward careful inspection. They get better with every step back.

The painter didn't even have an affinity for all natural hues; the greens of his trees and grasses have a lifeless, straight-from-tube quality. Deeper and more expressive are the yellows, oranges and reds, especially in large color fields that depict sea and sky. The coral-toned expanses of "Red Sky Over Folly Beach, S.C." and the yellow ones of "Nassau Sound" are among the exhibition's highlights. The latter painting, which depicts a placid river that divides into two channels and then flows into the sea, even has some compositional interest. So does "The Red Sea," whose projecting peaks look more Pacific than Atlantic.

Arguments can be made for Cunningham's work, and the show's catalogue articulately makes many of them. The artist was something of an environmentalist, and such details as the owl that nests in a despoiled forest in "Sanctuary" are crudely poignant. His bold hues, sometimes arrestingly unnatural, can upstage the graceless composition of such paintings as "The Everglades," whose dominant reds, oranges and browns are set off by a ship's unexpectedly yellow-green sails. Such robust contrasts hint that Cunningham might have been a notable artist had he abandoned his America for the land of pure color.

Anyone leaving "Earl Cunningham's America" and seeking an example of contemporary art that's too dependent on theory and text can walk a block west to Flashpoint, which is hosting an environmentally oriented show. There are no landscape paintings, but nature is addressed in photographs, videos, constructions and lots and lots of words. Even the exhibition's title is garrulous: "Earth on Stone on Earth Is Naturally So."

The show essentially consists of three sections, all grouped closely together in the small gallery. There are 10 "planted roofs," models inspired in part by the green roofs of some recent buildings; 10 photographs of artists who were buried alive (but not so completely that they couldn't breathe); and three 10-minute videos of abstract land and sea imagery. To add to the eco-ambiance, overhead lights cycle through "night" and "day" every 10 minutes, ambient music burbles and the floor is partially covered with artificial turf, leading to a fake hillock near the video screen.

The photos are typical of the show's outlook: images of people contemplating their temporary oneness with the Earth, each with the subject's commentary.

Jason Engdahl sticks out his tongue at the camera, and Timothy "Speed" Levitch (the Manhattan tour guide semi-immortalized in the 1998 documentary "The Cruise'') cracks that he's "proud to be biodegradable." Yet most of the accompanying remarks are long-winded and overblown, invoking Thoreau, Whitman and (of course) the Smiths. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust -- but not till you read the essay.

Conceived by Karl Krause and made by him with Evan Wells and Kelly McCoy, the miniature roofs are equally literary. The plantings augment sedum (a highly absorbent plant commonly used on green roofs) with thematic elements: pennies and shredded currency for "Human Benefit," corn, beans and herbs for "Urban Architecture." Each piece features a quotation, formula or haiku-like text, supplemented by a flier with information about environmental topics. Interesting, but again the words drown the art.

The show's most alluring entries are the videos, Wells's "Untitled (land)" and "Untitled (water)" and Colin Guthrie's "What It Feels Like to Be Buried in Old Snow." Whether representational or purely abstract, the images suggest nature's colors, forms and flux. With pixels substituting for brush strokes, the videos capture something of the evanescence that has inspired landscape painters for centuries.

EARL CUNNINGHAM'S AMERICA Through Nov. 4 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth & F streets NW (Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown). 202-633-1000. Open daily from 11:30 to 7.

EARTH ON STONE ON EARTH IS NATURALLY SO Through Aug. 31 at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. 202-315-1310. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 12 to 6.

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