SIMON GUNNING'S MISSISSIPPI RIVER
by
LAKE DOUGLAS

The Mississippi River, the Father of Waters, may be North America's single-most important geographic feature. Its length (over 2350 miles) , its power (612,000 cubic feet/second empty into the Gulf), and economic importance (billions in commerce are generated annually) describe a force that demands our attention. It holds an important place in American popular culture as well, having been the subject of a great American novel (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, [1885]) and one of the great musicals of the American theater (Kern and Hammerstein's "Show Boat" [1927], whose signature song is "Ol' Man River"). Critic Simon Schama says in Landscape and Memory (1995) that water courses carry the "freight of history," and certainly the Mississippi River, the source of countless myths, legends and traditions, carries the "freight" of our country's history.

It is curious, then, that the Mississippi River was not a subject tackled by the major landscape artists of the nineteenth century, America's greatest period of environmental painting. Using locals from Niagara Falls to the Rocky Mountains, Asher Durand (1796-1886), Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Frederick Church (1826-1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) illustrated the frontier to a young and growing nation. They illuminated the grandeur of America's physical environment and reinforced the political notions of America's Manifest Destiny. The details of their works demonstrate both romantic idealism and environmental accuracy often in grand scales that correspond with their heroic themes.

When examples of Mississippi River subjects occur in nineteenth century American art, they are local rather than national in size, generic rather than specific in content, and not at all allegorical. Hyppolite V.V. Sebron's "Giant Steamboats at New Orleans" (1850) and William Aiken Walker's "Loading Cotton, New Orleans" (n.d.) depict commercial life of the Mississppi River and give two views of the River's working character at New Orleans. For the most part, however, Mississppi River scenes in the nineteenth century American art are romanticized representations such as those published by Currier and Ives (notably Flora Bond Palmer's "A Midnight Race on the Mississippi" [1860]) and August Norieri's "Steamboat Natchez Bound Down the River at Night" (1890). The Currier and Ives views were made accessible to national audiences through advances in printing technology and new means of distribution, and their availability and appealing subject matter made them attractive to an increasing middle class. These views of life on the Mississippi are less about specific sites than they are about nostalgic images of generic life on the River.

In Louisiana, environmental inspiration for nineteenth century artists came primarily from local swamps and bayous, lakes and waterways rather than from the Mississippi River. The works of artists such as Richard Clague (1821-1873), William Henry Buck (1827-1888) and Joseph R. Meeker (1827-1889), long neglected, are now recognized via recent scholarship, exhibitions, and record sales as forming the basis of a significant regional movement in American art. Like smaller works of the Hudson River School and other regional expressions of landscape painting, these Louisiana landscapes were painted from direct observation. They are accurate representations of local environmental conditions, and often specific flora can be discerned. They are usually intimate in scale and unpretentious in scope. Though the Mississippi River corresponds in many ways with Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains, and Yellowstone Park as a force of nature, it did not command attention from Bierstadt and his colleagues or from their Louisiana counterparts.

Nineteenth century America moved from an agricultural to an industrial economy, and as the century ended, artists began to observe urban conditions and (to a lesser degree) industrial landscapes. Yet, unlike urban realists such as George Bellows (1882-1925), few early and mid-twentieth century landscape artists painted the guts of their subjects or portrayed environmental scenes as symbols of industrial currency. Landscape views continued to be idealized, romanticized, and to a great degree, sanitized of their workings.

As the twentieth century evolved, there was renewed interest in regionalism, realism, and large-scale works, reinforced by public works initiatives of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Generic (rather than specific) environmental features were used allegorically with the panoramic spaciousness seen first in nineteenth century landscapes. Murals, commissions for post offices, schools, and public libraries throughout America, depicted shared ideals and common beliefs through local agrarian, commercial or industrial subjects (often with controversial socialist overtones). Out of this narrative and allegorical tradition came Louisiana's own John McCrady (1911-1968). His magnum opus, "Mississippi River" (1945-46), recently removed from public view in New Orleans to a private collection in Houston, may be this century's grandest view of the Mississippi River. Its size (6'6" x 14'), compositional strength, and dramatic use of light compare favorably with nineteenth century counterparts, while its narrative quality expresses stories not immediately evident.

This is, briefly stated, the evolution of landscape painting in America, and it is within this context that Simon Gunning paints. Like many of his artist predecessors, Gunning came into his present environment and culture from a foreign country (Australia). With him came an outsider's sharp eye for urban context, an appreciation for the qualities of local light and color, and the capacity to show these elements in ways that natives may never have seen. This is why Simon Gunning's views of the lower Mississippi, shown in this exhibition of new works, have such power: he captures its industrial essence and gritty ambiance.

Sebron's and Walker's nineteenth century views of the New Orleans riverfront are populated with riverboats, cotton bales and dockhands, and McCrady's romantic version shows cavorting youth, plantation houses, and steamboats. For Gunning, the River is a place of labor and commerce. His views are populated not with people but instead with artifacts of the maritime industry. His river is about the reality of messy and dangerous work (perhaps now in the decline of its commercial relevance) and about how this incomparable geographic element has defined commerce and delineated urban form. Gunning shows us the River's architecture and vehicles, the up-river detritus, and the environmental impact that often results from industrial uses. Even the smells of wet rope, diesel fuel, and the creosote of worn pilings are here. Gunning's work suggests that maritime commerce in New Orleans at the conclusion of the twentieth century depends less on people than on machinery for existence.

While Gunning's works are not necessarily landscapes of the traditional sense of nineteenth or twentieth century precedents, they are landscapes that merit our attention and deserve careful observation. These views are realistic in that they show us what actually is there. They are abstract, however, in that they often contain mini-compositions of the artist's imagination, references totally unrelated to the subject at hand and relevant only to the artist. Finding these hidden images, whether or not they are of the artist's invention, will engage the viewer long after the intricate compositions, vibrant color combinations, and the sumptuous applications of paint are recognized.

These views are challenging, too, in that they make us ask questions: why have we not noticed this before? can the River really be so many different shades of grey, green, blue, and brown, all at the same time? can this landscape of industry and commerce really be interesting?

Ultimately, Gunning's work shows us the richness of this riverfront landscape and make us wonder why more artists are not using it as a source of inspiration. Possibly contemporary artists realize that the Mississippi River is too big and difficult a subject to tackle with just paint and canvas. Perhaps the River, carrying the "freight" of our nation's collective history, requires a narrative or theatrical format to express, adequately, its complexities. For the public, perhaps industrial landscapes are not perceived as being "beautiful" enough for popular consumption or worthy of artistic examination. For those of us who live near the River, perhaps it is like the elephant in the room: we all know it is there but no one wants to grapple with it, or knows how.

Yet, for a visual artist working in New Orleans, the Mississippi River is perhaps the preeminent environmental feature. The artist's job is to make us see things from new perspectives, and Gunning's work invites us to reconsider the Mississippi River through his lens of observation. In ways similar to what the music and lyrics of Kern and Hammerstein, the novels of Mark Twain, and the paintings of John McCrady say for their times, Gunning's works illuminates for our time the industrial landscape of the lower Mississippi River.

This work, the product of years of observation, could be the beginning of a longer investigation: the landscape of the Mississippi River might easily occupy a lifetime. There is still much to be learned from what the artist's eye sees and what the painter's canvases show us about this dominant -- though often ignored -- feature in our environment. And like nineteenth century artists who illuminated the American environment for an expanding country, Simon Gunning is one who can teach us today about our River and its impact on our lives.

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Trained as a landscape architect, Lake Douglas is an arts administrator. He writes about design and cultural issues in popular magazines and professional journals.

 

 

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