Appalachia. Say the word out loud and watch the stereotypes appear: mist upon the mountains, feudin' in the holler, overalls and outhouses, black lung in the mines . . . Uncle Pen is playing fiddle, Paw is singing hymns, Junior's in the pickup, Gran'maw's making quilts.
"More Than Land or Sky: Art From Appalachia," the regional exhibit that goes on view today at the National Museum of American Art, takes those stereotypes and bends them in unexpected ways. The artists represented may be loyal to the land, may love its myths and weathered shacks, its reveries and rust, its proud, suspicious people. But the art they have produced is far from country-simple.
It is sophisticated work, painstakingly produced. It educates, it entertains, it does not deign to shock. Most of it, in fact, seems less country than collegiate.
More than 40 of the 69 artists in this show have earned graduate degrees, and of these, three out of four support themselves by teaching at the college level. Some were born there in the hills, but others come from Italy, Dallas or New York, Newark or Chicago. The Appalachia we encounter in their well-made, knowing art is not just a mountain range; it is a cosmopolitan region.
And it is huge. It touches parts of 13 states, embracing, as it does so, not only Harlan County, but Tupelo, Miss., Pittsburgh, Pa., and Ithaca, N.Y. Nowadays, of course, any show that surveys a zone so enormous is certain to be brushed, as this one is, by Photo-Realism, Andrew Wyethism, Abstract Expressionism, Red Groomsism and other isms as familiar. This exhibit bends to fashion, but does not succumb. The nicest thing about it is its tolerance, its mix. It strikes a happy balance between the naive and the chic.
A number of its works are folksy, fresh and rough. David "Blue" Lamm, a West Virginia miner who paints the coal face and the picket line is, rightly, represented here. So is Howard Finster, a Georgia minister who painted his first picture in 1976 and has managed to produce more than 1,500 since. His "Cat" (1979) is an original, amusing, ghost-ridden delight. So is Lonnie B. Holley, the seventh of 27 children, an imaginative, talented stone carver who tells us in the catalogue, "I have not been into art but eight months. I asked God to give me something so that I may go to the top in life and He did."
Other pictures here, in contrast, suggest high sophistication. "Dog Watching, Raystown River," an 8-foot pencil drawing by Yale-trained Stephen A. Barbash, is among the most impressive. Its meticulously rendered details, its stones and trees and grasses, float in and out of focus and migrate back and forth between the distant realms of scientific naturalism and Pollock-like abstraction. Frank Fleming's tale-spinning porcelain, "A Dog's Painful Search for Knowledge," with its rat-trap, mutt and Wise Old Owl, is another well-made piece. "Winter Store" by Robert A. Gough, a study of a hay barn, is a strong and poignant painting. As admirable, if less Appalachian, is Charles J. Eldred's "Winter Camera," a work of shining bronze that seems to be part church and part machine. It's clear that all these artists know exactly what they're doing. So do landscape painters Robert Stark and William Dunlop and collagist Richard Lutzke, all of whom have often shown in Washington before.
Pointillism, porcelain, "folk art" and abstraction -- this show ought to fly apart. It doesn't. What enlivens it, what bonds it, what keeps its center whole, is its impressive rootedness. It does hymn Appalachia. Many of its works of art, and many of the best of them, seem in love with that land.
If you have ever driven through the hills of West Virginia you will recognize, at once, the car seat, the gray wood and the shambling grace of David Riffle's relief painting, "House in Nitro, West Virginia" (1979). "Harvey and George Childers, Pickens County, Georgia," a charcoal drawing by Columbia-trained Art Rosenbaum, "Busy Bee Diner," a carved and painted wood relief by Cornell-trained Mary Shelly, and "Hevener's Cemetery," a peaceful little landscape by Pratt-trained Barry Vance, summon memories as telling. These works somehow catch Appalachia's likeness. They aren't all that original. They succeed because the viewer trusts them. Their feelings feel authentic.
The museum has, in recent years, surveyed the art of Chicago, Alaska, California and the Far Northwest. "More Than Land or Sky" is a good addition to that useful series of regional exhibits. It was curated by Barbara Shissler Nosanow. It will travel through Appalachia after closing here Jan. 3.