Illuminating America

The search for a uniquely American identity in art was a concern of artistic and intellectual circles in the first half of the 20th century. Our Nation's Colors: A Celebration of American Painting, comprising about 70 paintings from the Wichita Art Museum and currently on exhibit on Orlando Museum of Art, illuminates this search through interpretations of the landscape, political and social concerns, and the human condition.

The first, interpretations of landscape, is well represented. Winslow Homer's oil "In the Mowing" (1874) is an idyllic rendering of rural life in Cambridge, Mass. Three boys stand knee-deep in a field of daisies and browned summer grasses, their backs turned as they acknowledge someone calling them.

Homer's harmonious tones evoke a sense of tranquility, a sharp contrast to George Bellows' turbulent oil "The Skeleton" (1916). Part of a series of works on shipbuilding at Camden, Maine, "The Skeleton" portrays the pale wooden carcass of a ship braced on rocks perilously near the sea. The choppy ocean and rolling storm clouds evoke an emotional tension reflecting the turmoil over American involvement in World War I, for which the ship has been commissioned.

Yasuo Kuniyoshi's "Quiet Pool" (circa 1952) uses a stark black landscape as a metaphor for his psychological angst. Using Sumi ink on paper, a technique that recalls Japanese Zen brush drawings, he renders an imaginary locale in which perspective is obliterated. The only identifiable forms are a dragonfly and the dead tree jutting into the sky. The contrast between black and white -- symbolically life and death -- alludes to Kuniyoshi's battle with terminal illness, and also his despondency in the aftermath of World War II.

Black ink on white paper is also effectively used in Reginald Marsh's "The Bowery" (1952-53), a blunt, touching portrayal of homeless men along New York's Skid Row. Marsh's minimal architectural detail imbues the work with a universal relevance, though these particular derelicts appear to live underneath a bridge or subway platform. Their hopelessness is mirrored in their slumped postures and blank gazes. These are people the world has forgotten. Through his inclusion in the foreground of a strewn newspaper -- its headlines focused on issues of the Cold War -- Marsh seems to question which is more important, these lost, destitute citizens or the larger political issues.

Equally political is Vincent La Gambina's dark oil "Coal Mine Disaster," which shows miners carrying out the ashen, lifeless bodies of fellow workers after an accident. The central figure group is framed by the rough wooden timbers supporting the tunnel, which immediately draws attention to the gaping mouth and hollow features of the man half-sprawled in the arms of two heroic comrades. His expression is mirrored in the man at his feet, a clever visual juxtaposition of life and death. La Gambina completed this painting in 1941, a year characterized by strikes by the United Mine Workers' Association that forced negotiations between the miners and mine owners for better working conditions.

Social criticism also tints Jack Levine's vibrant oil "Medicine Show IV" (1958), in which a huckster flaunts the benefits of an elixir that he holds up to a captivated crowd. Scantily-clad women behind him help draw attention to his dramatics. Patches of blurred paint imply the rapid pace of sales and accentuate this depiction of human gullibility and corruption, emphasized by the carnival-like atmosphere.

Likewise, Walt Kuhn draws on his years working for the circus and vaudeville in his portrait "Girl in Shako" (1930), but in this instance it's to convey the loneliness of one woman in a rapidly modernizing and changing society. The female performer gazes directly at the viewer, her expression bland, her face a mask of gaudy makeup that distorts her true features. The drab gray background only adds to the impression of alienation.

And again isolation colors Edward Hopper's "Sunlight on Brownstones" (1956). A well-dressed man and woman lounge on the steps of their apartment but, while physically close, they do not interact; both are preoccupied by something outside the edge of the painting. The viewer remains distant from them, just as they are from one another. Hopper's manipulation of light and dark, warm and cool colors enhances the sense of discord.

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