Paper And Paste

aerial photo
Between Greenville and Piqua, Ohio.

Our fallback is to think of the surveyor’s view as being the correct one; that the Jeffersonian grid of the Midwest landscape is its single determining fact. To make such an image, you need flatness; at enough of a remove, the glaciated plain, spread over with bison dung, lime dust, and ground bluestem, becomes a gessoed canvas.

But, given a window seat, you do not see a neat grid as you fly over the results. Rather, the grid always seem to slip away as you try to follow the rule. As it tries to reproduce itself, the grid finds errors in the plane it supposes; it hits an outcropping, or a stream bed, or a seam of coal. Worse, the ideal plane cannot be reconciled with the dented sphere of the earth, and keeps having to be reset, making for an irritating series of forced turns for the drivers inside it. Worst of all: old traces thought to be banished, flattened mounds or filled sinkholes, keep leaching through the pattern like drops of coffee on a desk, wicked into a letter.

cox painting
John Rogers Cox, CLOUD TRAILS.

Having been made from above, from afar, having been made imperfectly, it becomes uncanny to actually inhabit such a place firsthand. The view switches back and forth between the wave of grass and the particles of distinct stalks, the big fact of normalcy and the ten thousand imperfect iterations of it. There is some of the same elusive regularity in perspective: the wheat shocks on what you take to be a square field, bouncing lightly toward the horizon. But other repetitions play out differently, to be held in your memory and not in any single view. The advertisements for fairs and tobacco on Cox’s barn would have recurred along the road, in the wake of a billsticker; let these posters stand in for the endless trucking-in of goods to the colony, rafted up from New Orleans or over from Philadelphia. The relay of hatchets and drainage tiles makes the landscape, but in a fugitive way; the way of a train or a truck skating now and then over the surface of the field, of a wire fence forgotten in a growing hedgerow.

These repetitions on the ground face a more elusive repetition in the air, playing out an almanac day by day, shuffled in a way that is always temptingly close to being figured out.

wood wallpaper
Grant Wood, THE RIDE OF PAUL REVERE wallpaper.

There’s no point in dwelling on what is boring about being here; you may as well dwell on what is harder to communicate in an image. One of the best images I know of the Midwest is not even supposed to show it, though I think Grant Wood would be flattered to hear that he could not help but painting Iowa even when he was painting something else. Here, he isn’t even painting; this is wallpaper, produced after his death after the pattern of his Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. The stalk of the road is stretched into links around the steeple posts; Sears houses are sprinkled here and there among trees carved of wood; the bluffs are cut sharply enough to suggest erosion. The woven landscape of one thing after another is only given life in the moment by an alarm: intruders, intruders.

burchfield painting

I guess what I am seeing in the Wood is that repetition is fated to run into errors; his wallpaper would be misprinted, hung out of phase, soaked through by a leak. In the work of a wallpaper master, Charles Burchfield, we can see instances of a pattern – bramble twigs, cottonwood trunks – laid on top of each other, part of an indeterminate weave. The value in Burchfield is not only in magnifying the inherent color of the drab – the glimpse of the bluebird – but in dwelling on the tangle, the aspect of the drawn landscape that wants to go undrawn, the way that flatness will acquire relief despite itself.

(May 2022)