Against the Tide of Impermanence: American Paintings and the Experiential Image
by Chloe Heins, Director
So, what do you do ? I’m the director of an art gallery. Oh, which gallery ? Questroyal Fine Art. Don’t think I know it. What type of art ? American paintings. American paintings ? Like Basquiat ? No, earlier, like Georgia O’Keeffe or Edward Hopper. Oh, right. Are you in Chelsea ? No, the Upper East Side. Interesting… I’ll have to come by sometime.
This is the typical conversation I have when I meet someone for the first time. I explain that though Basquiat and Warhol are American painters, “American paintings” is actually a completely different genre of art. They politely nod in recognition, especially when I mention names like O’Keeffe, Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Norman Rockwell. Yet, my corner of the art world is unfamiliar to many people — even those who frequent museums and galleries. They listen patiently as I elaborate on my appreciation for nineteenth- and twentieth-century American paintings. Some express interest, though few can visualize the art I describe. Stereotypically, people of a certain demographic, who can afford to buy original artwork, jostle to “sit at the cool kids’ table,” as my client aptly described it. In other words, they buy postwar and contemporary art — maybe because they love it, but mostly because it’s what they hear about.
Canyon Point, Utah, 2017 iPhone photo by Chloe Heins
Recently, I went on vacation to Arizona and Utah. I expected the landscape to be awe-inspiring, but I was vastly unprepared for its otherworldliness. I hiked on dusty trails in red-rock canyons and over seemingly Martian rock formations, pausing along the way to unzip my backpack, grab my iPhone, and blindly snap photos in the bright sun. Of course, you can’t expect a quick snapshot to encapsulate the views and the experience, but isn’t that all you are left with ? Unless you are an artist or documentarian who focuses on landscape, this is your visual souvenir — a few quick digital photos, maybe enhanced a bit, then hastily (or after too much thought) posted on social media to elicit flattery and clever (or mundane) comments from anyone who has a split second to look and react. Then the world moves on, rapidly.
A year ago, Instagram — the only social media platform I relate to — introduced “stories,” their version of the temporary visual narrative that disappears after twenty-four hours. Immune to its popularity, I prefer the original format with its more “permanent” images, which themselves are eventually pushed into oblivion. Nowadays, there is no looking back — the images vanish, and you are expected to forget them — unless, of course, they appear on a “throwback” post, perpetuating the cycle of temporariness. They are replaced by a constant feed of new photos, as inherently remarkable as passing clouds. “Where did you go on vacation again ?” my friends and acquaintances ask. Though they ostensibly saw and even “liked” or commented on the photos I posted, crucial details are not absorbed. Are even the most extraordinary, noteworthy images instantly obsolete due to rapid replacement ? Or, more importantly, is the medium simply not capable of giving the viewer a lasting impression ?
Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), Landscape, New Mexico, 1919–20, oil on canvas, 27 1/8 x 34 7/8 inches; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949, 49.70.46
Is anyone with an Instagram account a photographer ? Who is an artist, and who is not ? Now, more than ever, the lines are blurred. This July, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced its first Instagram Artist in Residence.  While “Instagram takeovers” are common practice, and I encourage dialogue and public forums, are they an artistic process ? Does posting images, found or original, on Instagram dilute their potency in a meaningful way ? Can we still rely on artists, however we define them, to create powerful imagery that evokes a place (a sacred, ancient creative practice), or has it become solely the collective responsibility of social media users ? Do we value visual depictions that are not ephemeral, and if not, how can contemporary art, with its fixation on concept and process, continue to prioritize the image ?
The smell of sage and juniper instantly transports me to the transcendent desert locales that left their mark, yet I still yearn for images. The desire to cling to visual elements of the landscape and to tangibly recall the sensations I experienced remains unfulfilled. It does not deliver motivation or inspiration to print photos I inexpertly took, even the superior files from my digital camera. I am not an artist, though at one point, I considered myself one, and I grew up in an artistic household. And given my profession, I often think about the changes in our visual culture during my brief lifetime and how current technologies and practices have affected the permanence of images, especially in art being made today. This leads me back to American paintings and their lasting relevance. They represent an era of image-based art, where a sense of place — even visible in non- landscape subjects—is conveyed to the viewer. In art, the label of “contemporary” is impermanent and has no guaranteed correlation to significance.
If you are fortunate enough to own a painting, then you know that it can be experienced at any moment. If you pass it hanging in your hallway, you may pause or you may brush right by; however, you’ll always have the luxury of rising in the middle of the night to tiptoe through the still house, turn on a light, and admire your painting. This offers a private moment between you, the artist, and “the place”— whether it is a landscape, the background in a still life or portrait, or a metaphysical realm. Real or imaginary, the experience of this place, depicted by the artist, accompanies you, both in your daily life and in your consciousness. It makes you different than everyone else. It bears no hashtag and no links beyond your thoughts and its provenance — the legacy that now includes you. When it leaves you, it brings you along. It won’t become lost in a sea of perfected images, capturing a life that looks more appealing on a device than in reality. Your painting won’t be replaced by an image you view through a virtual reality headset while pacing indoors. It will remain in the form the artist intended, offering its viewers an impossible gift — an experiential image grounded against the tide of the moment — visual timelessness that was not conceived in Silicon Valley or repurposed for a reaction.
1. Chi-Young Kim, “Announcing LACMA’s First Instagram Artist in Residence,” July 5, 2017, http://unframed.lacma.org/2017/07/05/announcing-lacma%E2%80%99s-first-instagram -artist-residence