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December 1, 2003

American art: weird, wild, wonderful

By Joe Keo and Katie Jordan

Put aside that American history textbook and experience the nation’s past through art.

The New Britain Museum of American Art is the perfect place to start. American history

is expressed in the museum’s collection, and visitors will see every aspect of the national

identity from the weird to the wild.

Back in colonial times, untrained folk artists painted flat and pale portraits of wealthy and educated Americans. The aristocrats posed stiffly and looked moody. Baby faces resembled those of middle-aged men — imagine someone’s father wearing a bib (talk about creepy). These artists could have used some art classes.

Moving on through the museum’s corridors, painter Winslow Homer’s Skirmish in the Wilderness recreates a scene out of the Civil War.

The painting is almost completely dark, except for a few soldiers standing in a spot of light. The darkness surrounding them conceals lurking enemies — with every moment spent gazing into the forest, the enemy force seems to grow as more and more hidden soldiers are found.

The image is so exciting and action-packed that it sends chills down the spine.

The world of American impressionism is well-represented in the museum, with works by Mary Cassatt and Childe Hassam. Their visible brushstrokes and cool color schemes will put onlookers right into the painted fields and everyday American lives depicted on the canvas.

Impressionism wasn’t always popular.

These paintings and other unconventional pieces were initially assailed by art critics.

The critics even dubbed some styles of art “ash can” because they thought the crazy new style was nothing but worthless trash.

They thought wrong.

These pieces of so-called “trash” eventually became well-respected and legitimate works of art, which now hang in a room at the New Britian Museum of American Art called the “Ash Can Gallery.”

This treasure chest of unique art includes pointillism, comic-style pieces and anything else that was unconventional at the time.

As history progressed, so did the variety of the museum’s collection. Traditional American art evolved into some of the country’s wildest displays of contemporary work.

It’s always the strange and intriguing that reels in the visitors.

Everyone knows of Jackson Pollock’s famous splatter paintings. You would swear someone just went nuts and dripped cans of different colored paints onto a canvas — which is basically what he did.

At the New Britian museum, visitors can see Yielding, a splatter painting by artist Sam Francis.

Conceptualist artist Sol LeWitt’s work hangs in a nearby gallery. Geometric, symmetric, and eccentric all describe his style.

LeWitt himself didn’t actually create these pieces — just the ideas behind them. He wrote up directions for each piece, and whoever bought the art was really buying the directions to create it. The buyer had to put it together.

The 20th century gallery is bursting with all kinds of intriguing art — and there’s no art more intriguing than surrealism. This style is an exciting, sometimes unsettling, peek into the world of the bizarre minds of artists.

Peter Blume’s Boulders of Avila is a sort of fantasy landscape almost entirely devoted to huge, unrealistic, cartoon-like rocks, above which swirls a purple-blue sky.

In George Tooker’s Birdwatchers, the artist poses a group of bird watchers reverently beneath a tree, in an artistic parody of religious paintings. The somewhat comic piece is also disturbing because all of the 12 men and women in the painting have the same face.

After that, you think you’ve seen it all.

Think again.

After awhile the definition of art seems to break all boundaries.

But maybe it’s not that the creators and lovers of contemporary art see art where it doesn’t exist — maybe some people are overlooking art where it does exist.

Maybe art is everywhere. It all depends on how you look at it.

Just like history, art is open to interpretation.

Click here for The Tattoo's all-art issue

 

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