Review: American values in eye of beholder in ‘Cross Country’ at High

Now might be as good a time as any to contemplate what makes America, America. In the midst of deep political divisions, “Cross Country: The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950” at the High Museum may serve as a reminder of our common currency in the land, people, history and experience of living from sea to shining sea.

“Cross Country” is a far-ranging exhibition dedicated to just that: what America looks like (wheat, rolling hills, teeming seas, factories, barns and farms loom large) and what it represents to the artists — among them Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keeffe, Dorothea Lange, Grant Wood, Hale Woodruff — behind the 200 works in this show.

The premise of the show is, essentially, flyover country: the many places outside of major metropolises that became the focus of artists with, among other things, a growing highway system, access to automobiles and especially with FDR’s Depression-era agencies like the Farm Security Administration photography program, which dispatched big-city artists out into the hinterlands in search of America’s soul. That movement also sent the prevailing artistic expression, modernism, out into the rural landscape, where artists interpreted rural life in new terms.

RELATED: High Museum’s ‘Cross Country’ is a sweeping view of America

While “Cross Country” is capable of puffing one up with pride over our beautiful countryside and the resilient, strong, hardworking people that define it, it is also a reminder that the idea of the past as a blissful Technicolor wonderland is a patent fiction.

“Cross Country” is often a major bummer: The Depression looms large and labor often looks more like an act of desperation to stave off ruin than an identity-affirming, satisfying pursuit. For every homespun image of small-town conviviality like Harry Louis Freund’s delightfully unconventional overhead painting “Crossroad Forum” (1935) of men gathered in a country store, there are images that speak to sniping, crushing small-town America that would do Sinclair Lewis proud.

“Cross Country”’s alternating vision of Middle America features abject poverty’s gaunt, tragedy-marked faces in a selection of Walker Evans’ and Peter Sekaer’s black-and-white photographs, and then there are Ansel Adams’ visions of the majestic West that look like travel posters for an American ideal at its most abstract and glorious.

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Divided into geographic sections — South, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, Midwest, West — “Cross Country” ambles through the United States of the past with its curators’ distinctly contemporary consciousness foregrounded. Diversity has been placed front and center, the better to counter a hazy vision of the past forged in advertising and exclusion. It is no coincidence that the Southern phase of “Cross Country” features not only a number of black artists, but a number of black faces. Probably the most downbeat and turbulent of the regions represented in “Cross Country,” the South is also where this exhibition really shines amid a great deal of trumpet solos of lonely lanes, wheat fields and barns upon barns upon barns.

There is a dark, cataclysmic streak in this Southern work, from Lamar Baker’s painting of a landscape marked by door-to-door grim reapers in “There’s a Man Going ‘Round Taking Names” (1943) to the aftermath of a lynching in Frederick C. Flemister’s “The Mourners” reminiscent of a Renaissance painting of the pieta. It’s hard to look at these works and say America’s best days are behind it.

A country this divided has shown us time and again that reality is all a matter of perception. And so, there is probably enough ambiguity in “Cross Country” to see it as an affirming and pleasant salute to our common bonds, or if your sensibility is of a darker strain, to see America as a series of peaceful valleys and tumultuous, resolve-testing hardships that make one imagine today’s Americans are made of far softer stuff.

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