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The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibit “No Mountains in the Way” offers a time capsule of black-and-white photographs from mid-1970s Kansas—-a collection that ends up, whatever the artists’ original intent, being gritty and unrelentingly grim, much more In Cold Blood than The Wizard of Oz.
The exhibit originated with a documentary project originally funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. It featured the work of three photographers—-Jim Enyeart, then the curator of photography at the University of Kansas Museum of Art, along with Kansas natives Terry Evans and Larry Schwarm. The trio focused on the state’s architecture, residents, and landscape, respectively.
The exhibit’s 63 vintage prints are exclusively black-and-white, which heightens their drab vibe. In this selection of images, places that time forgot are more often discomfiting than quaint.
For every grain elevator that suggests a Greek temple, there are a dozen buildings that showcase the region’s unpretentious architectural vernacular; mostly, they lack either the brightly lit, whitewashed charm of Walker Evans’ Depression-era Southern structures or the narrative momentum of William Christenberry’s chronological matrices of decaying Alabama buildings.
Indeed, except for a few stately, Romanesque government buildings and one residence with a cheerful demilune window, the clapboard, cinderblock, and stucco buildings on view are typically bleak, not to mention devoid of people.
Where people do pop up, they don’t look all that happy about participating, whether they’re workers clad in smeared overalls, elderly farm couples, or exhausted-looking migrant workers. There’s barely a smile in the bunch.
Ultimately, the most interesting images are those with a touch of abstraction, mostly in works by Schwarm. In one image, a haystack is shaped like a flight of steps leading up to a stage; in another, a different haystack is draped by a pair of tires that turn the pile into something resembling a face.
His most understatedly impressive photograph features a small airplane hangar—-barely bigger than the prop plane it encloses—-with the legend “YE MUST BE BORN AGAIN” stenciled on the overhang. In this tableau, Schwarm has found a scene that is at once structurally pleasing and thematically enigmatic.
Through July 31 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets, NW. Daily 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
Photos from top: “Hillsdale” by James L. Enyeart (1974); “Kansas House” by James L. Enyeart (1974); “Roy” by Terry Evans (1974); “Leavenworth County” by Larry W. Schwarm (1974)