The open road is so quintessentially American that it verges on cliché. The Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit “Landscapes In Passing” follows this well-traveled route, with mixed results.
The exhibit features works by three photographers—-Robbert Flick, Elaine Mayes and Steve Fitch—-each of whom documented America’s landscape as seen from the automobile in the 1970s and early 1980s. None of the three is a household name; each is far less known than members of the New Topographics movement they share an ugly-is-beautiful aesthetic with, such as Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz.
Flick’s technique is the most inventive: He drove a car, taking photographs of the passing Los Angeles scenery at regular intervals, then organized the contact-print-sized images into rigid 10-by-10 grids. Some of the grids are cleverly constructed; one of Marina del Rey puts houses and beach in alternating columns, while another of Manhattan Beach follows each row uphill from the shore to a series of homes (bottom). A third, taken in Venice Beach on Labor Day weekend 1980, is sufficiently dynamic to suggest one of Garry Winogrand’s shoot-from-the-hip contact sheets.
More often, though, Flick’s concept is more interesting than his execution; his individual images are small enough to cause eyestrain, yet up close, the grids are overwhelming to the point of fatigue. Flick’s approach pales compared to the one used by Ed Ruscha in his celebrated 1966 fold-out book Every Building on the Sunset Strip, which placed its lengthy streetscapes into a much easier to understand 7 1/8 inch-by-297 inch format.
Mayes also made her images from a moving car, traveling across the country and flipping the shutter whenever the landscape changed. Mayes’ technique is well designed to capture horizontal bands of road, grass and sky (middle). Such visuals exude a hypnotic rhythm, but one that becomes a little too hypnotic; her photographs end up being only marginally more absorbing than Flick’s.
The most engaging images come from Fitch, in part because they’re carefully thought out rather than happenstance. Unlike the others, Fitch focuses on objects—-kitschy billboards, run-down dinosaur statues, and patently offensive Indian-themed motels. (For good measure, the Wigwam is actually constructed like a teepee.)
The exhibit includes a few too many of Fitch’s images of a creepy snakepit and zoo in rural Oklahoma, but this excess is made up for by the exhibit’s most captivating photograph: a deserted, nighttime image of the art-deco Trail drive-in movie theater in San Antonio (top), decorated by a vernacular rendering of a cowboy scene. The fresco offers a perfect example of how reality, fantasy and art come together to produce the myth of the American West.
The exhibit is on view daily (except Christmas) to Jan. 20, 2014 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets NW.