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.

RELATED: What you need to know before visiting Atlanta’s High Museum of Art

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.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Living

Absinthe arrives in Atlanta
Absinthe arrives in Atlanta

If you were to believe the stories, absinthe is a wild drink, an alcoholic spirit from the heart of Europe that conjures hallucinations, inspires poets and ignites madness. Those are great stories, but they’re far from the truth. And, with the introduction of Jetty, the first absinthe distilled and bottled in Georgia, area drinkers can experience...
How to know if your child is overweight
How to know if your child is overweight

It's easy to fall in love with your child's chubby cheeks and pudgy legs. But by the age of two, if your toddler is heavier than the other children of the same age, it's possible that he or she may be overweight.  How can you tell the difference between normal baby fat and an actual weight problem? Here's the skinny on excessive weight and obesity...
Things to do in and around Atlanta for Wednesday, July 18
Things to do in and around Atlanta for Wednesday, July 18

Hump Day! Yeah, we know. You’re tired of hearing about it. But not as tired as you are of trying to slog through it with no rewards along the way. That’s why we’re here. Here are a few suggestions for fun and interesting things to do this Hu -- er, this Wednesday.  “VIOLENT FEMMES AND ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN” It&rsquo...
Destiny’s Child star Michelle Williams checks in to mental health facility, reports say
Destiny’s Child star Michelle Williams checks in to mental health facility, reports say

Destiny’s Child star Michelle Williams has reportedly checked herself into a mental health facility, TMZ reports. Williams posted a letter to her fans on her Instagram page on Tuesday. “I recently listened to the same advice I have given thousands around the world and sought help from a great team of professionals,” Williams...
Dragon Con promises a ‘Stranger’ Labor Day
Dragon Con promises a ‘Stranger’ Labor Day

Expect a “Stranger” Dragon Con this year. Stars from “Stranger Things” will be among the many celebrity guests at Dragon Con 2018, the enormous pop culture convention taking place in downtown Atlanta from Aug. 31-Sept. 3. There will be 400 personalities from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy appearing in panels...
More Stories