Next to Christmas, the sweltering Dog Days are the season for nostalgia, perfect for recalling the glorious summers of youth—when sports and picnics and swimming and romance were wont to bloom in tall grass and long afternoons—even while enjoying today’s diminished but still pleasurable version. Despite its official-sounding Greek name (the word neatly doubles the English “homesickness,” though it more precisely means “pain”), nostalgia was discovered only three centuries ago, just in time to be deployed by the Romantics, and from the beginning was a troubled diagnosis. First, in spite of near–universality and well–documented morbidity, few sufferers will admit to having the disease. Second, the disease tends to come unstuck from its reputed cause. We tend to relate instinctual pain caused by loss of familiar surroundings with our response to the passage of time. The past becomes our lost homeland, and unease brought on by the sensibly familiar, reversible distance of miles maybe replaced by the anguish brought on by the most mysterious property in nature. The transparent veil of time past, while no obstacle whatever to our memories and dreams, remains utterly impenetrable to our flesh. Nostalgia shades toward saudade: the longing for that which is lost.
Part of the problem, of course, is our lack of any clear distinction between nostalgia and sentimentality. Oscar Wilde, whose critical faculty for art was as sharp as a scalpel, nailed the quality of willfully excessive response to inadequate stimulus that characterizes sentimentality when he wrote to Alfred Douglas: “A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have an emotion without paying for it.” That “excess response to inadequate stimulus” could as well describe Wilde’s affection for Douglas only underscores the subjectivity of the entire question: one person’s incision is another’s wallow. So perhaps all we can say is that proportionate nostalgia that doesn’t transcend wistfulness is agreeable, but when it indulges in the uncritical and excessive response characteristic of sentimentality one is on ones own.
These ruminations were stimulated by the confluence of two exhibitions in the nostalgia-worthy heartland of Utah. Neither the Central Utah Art Center(CUAC), nor Snow College’s nameless gallery, both located in Ephraim, can be convicted of sentimentality. Last month the CUAC showed Inga Huld Tryggvadottir, an Icelandic printmaker whose “Dinner” featured felt fish swimming across the walls in schools suggesting current and timeless questions, from mass behavior to mass extinction. This month’s “Constructing Nostalgia,” to be reviewed in the September edition of 15 Bytes, deliberately sets out to erect a cage of irony within which nostalgia can be cultivated as safely as tigers in a zoo. Just as that show was winding down, Snow College mounted “Local Color,” works by thirteen painters who prove that nostalgia is no more confined to time than it is to place. It can be about here; it can be about now.
The painters on display at Snow—Michael Workman, Michael Woodbury, John R. Stevens, Ron Richmond, Carl Purcell, Kathy Peterson, Dale Peel, Jared Latimer, Douglas Fryer, Kelly Brooks, Lee Udall Bennion, Osral B. Allred, and Brad Aldridge—with the exception of Stevens make their artistic homes within the tradition of illusionistic representation. Stevens locates his painting in the hard edge abstraction of Ellsworth Kelly and his associates. So they all practice a kind of nostalgia, but for a way of painting rather than a place or time. The one exception in the gallery is a video painting by Latimer that brings his resolution of the conflict between drawing and painting (a static version of which can be seen nearby on one of his vertical landscapes) to anxious life.
As much as anything, what one sees in these diverging but sympathetic artists are subtle differences between generations.Allred and Purcell, the grand old men (and the teachers of many of the others), display a mature acceptance of their roles as archivists of both subject and method.Their nearest contemporaries display a variety of self-conscious gestures toward Modernism: Peterson’s brushwork calls attention to the way her figures emerge from their grounds, while Aldridge borrows from Photorealism to animate the water moving through his contemplative landscapes. Even more pronounced contrast is resolved in Richmond’s hallucinatory juxtapositions of Baroque religious paintings with trompe l’oeil objects that fill with spiritual significance in their context.
Not all these paintings are landscapes, but their makers have responded to the landscapes where they were made. In spite of their rural environment, rich with reminders of Utah history, their subjects are neither sentimental nor nostalgic. Everything here that bears a pedigree has also penetrated the present. That may be the most important quality these painters share in common. Their technical nostalgia, their affection for the look of things, argues that the tapestry of history is woven not by places or the artifacts that ornament them, but by the alert and responsive beings that dwell among them. And thanks to the remarkable concentration of artists in Sanpete County, it is possible to see how three generations of painters have evolved in response to changes in both life and art.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.