In wine circles, it’s called terroir – the idea that place matters. Certain wines, it’s said, are particularly expressive of the region they come from; some mysterious combination of geology and tradition adds up to a distinctive ‘somewhereness’ in the bottle. Terroir is an old concept, but it’s having a moment lately: geographic distinctiveness is a selling point, a strike against bland globalist homogenization. In the art world too, ideas of ‘place’ and ‘the local’ have similar cachet, for seemingly similar reasons. Yet what exactly the concept implies – how a place ‘gets into’ a work of art – often remains vague. Place often seems to function as what Roland Barthes called a ‘mana-word’: an uncertain signifier, never fully defined, yet somehow almost sacred. It is a powerfully attractive concept, with its suggestions of connection and rootedness. Who, after all, wants to belong to some placeless, generic world?
The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art’s group exhibition ‘here.’ was ostensibly about such ideas of ‘place’ – in the words of curator Julien Robson, it was meant to explore how ‘the experience of place saturates the work of the artist’. In the loftier language of the exhibition’s press release, it sought to ‘redefine “regionalism” in contemporary art’. But, more concretely, it was a show about a few specific places: six cities that ‘lie away from the visible centres of American art’. Robson and five guest curators each chose four artists from the regions where they are based: Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City and Phoenix.
These mid-sized cities, neither provincial hinterlands nor cultural hubs, all support strong art ‘scenes’. Yet they are places, as guest curator Claire Schneider put it, ‘where the Whitney Biennial doesn’t touch down, or does so too briefly and infrequently’. Such regions – and quite a few more like them across the country – exist for the most part outside the ‘official’ art market and the prestigious art-institutional networks. They are sustained through the efforts of overworked, underfunded museum professionals and energetic young artists taking advantage of cheap real estate to create DIY spaces and projects that wouldn’t be possible elsewhere. My own visits to various ‘peripheral’ local scenes have, over the last few years, served as a balm to cynicism about the mainstream art world. Smaller art scenes have a distinctive buzz that comes from the complex interactions within them, the odd and unlikely alliances forged in the service of the community.
I wish that kind of buzz was felt more powerfully in ‘here.’ Certainly, Robson, the other curators and the Pennsylvania Academy should be applauded for mounting such a show. More exhibitions like this should be staged, more of this work seen, more of these ‘peripheral’ cities visited and written about. Yet the exhibition – though it featured much worthwhile art work – too often seemed inert and unfocused. Presented in an all-too-conventional museum format, much of the vital local context that energized these works was paradoxically stripped away. In part, the show was weighed down by its conceit; the sort of ‘new regionalism’ it proposed – a celebration of geographic specificity – was projected more than felt.
Several of the works in the show were precisely about the loss of such regional distinctiveness, presenting ‘place’ as something threatened or vanishing or already long gone. Jennifer Levonian’s sweetly odd hand-drawn animation The Oven Sky (2011), served as a bit of reportage from one small battleground, a gentrifying Philadelphia neighbourhood where cupcake shops and whimsical boutiques represent the hegemonic new order. The same story could undoubtedly be told about many such ‘transitional’ neighbourhoods across the country. A blunter and more specific version of the same dynamic came from the Native American art collective Postcommodity in their four-channel video installation Na’nizhoozhi da’ nijahigi na’ a’ahi (Gallup Motel Butchering) (2010). It depicts a young Navajo woman wordlessly and methodically slaughtering and butchering a sheep in the bathroom of a motel room. The offhand violence of the scene, one soon realized, came more from the setting than the act, the traditional process made strange and brutal in the antiseptic no-place of the motel.
The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things (2001–present), a sort of travelling sideshow by Kansas-based artist Erika Nelson, could be seen as a parody of the very notion of regional specificity. Nelson’s exhibit consists of handmade miniature replicas of vernacular roadside attractions: the monumental ketchup bottles, pecans, tyres and the like designed to celebrate hometown industries and hopefully to attract tourists. There is something both absurd and moving about this memorial to local identity, each place reduced to a knickknack on a shelf.
Other works had a more oblique relationship to geographic location, or perhaps eluded the exhibition’s conceptual framework completely. Stacy Lynn Waddell’s installation Aarkaydea (2011) concerns itself with the history of Philadelphia rather than her own hometown of Chapel Hill. Abigail Anne Newbold’s ‘Homemaker Series’ (2010–11), a DIY bicycle-powered habitat kit, suggests a nomadic lifestyle purposely opposed to any single ‘here’. Sue Chenoweth’s eccentric, free-associative paintings seems to come from a private, self-created place, more than from a neighbourhood in Phoenix.
Frustratingly, the work that actually was most intimately tied to its locality was the work most poorly served by the exhibition format.
This is less the fault of particular curatorial choices, than the unavoidable difficulty of presenting social-based work – work not just about but for a particular place – in a museum context. Video documentation didn’t do justice to Gregory Sale’s long-term project with prisoners and the Arizona State University Art Museum. Whoop De Doo, a collective from Kansas City that stages wonderfully demented low-budget variety-show spectacles, fared slightly better, with wildly entertaining compilation videos presented in an environment resembling the aftermath of a children’s birthday party. Yet still a larger context felt lacking.
Other collectives included were represented by artefacts and ephemera that only gave a hint of their activities. Yet Cincinnati’s Bunk News Arts Collective maintains a YouTube channel packed with documentation of performances and events; Whoop De Doo, Philadelphia’s Megawords, and Elsewhere from Greensboro, North Carolina, each have sophisticated websites overflowing with material (as do most of the other artists in the show). It seems a shame that all this treasure was neglected; while Robson gestured to the Internet’s ‘new connectivity’ in his catalogue essay, the show itself was mired in a conventional mode of presentation. I believe it would have benefitted immeasurably from a dedicated website, something that could deepen context and enable further connections long after the show closed. (The wiki page the Whitney created for the 2010 Biennial, though underpublicized, could serve as a great model for this kind of thing.) If institutions like the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and other local art organizations want to continue to support the growth of regional diversity, they might want to devote more time and energy to the online world, and explore novel ways of connecting artists with each other and with new audiences. Rather than simply curating work into shows, and hoping to be noticed, they could serve as facilitators for ongoing conversations already happening within and between art worlds – here, there and everywhere.