The beauty of nature and the terror of industry share wall space in “Blistering Vision,” an exhibition designed to radically rearrange our understanding of one of the great American artists of the 20th Century.
The show, organized by Tullis Johnson and set to open July 8 in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, is the first in a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the center. It features more than 100 paintings and drawings by Charles E. Burchfield that demonstrate the artist’s fascination with American industry and its often disastrous effects on the natural landscape.
Rather than promoting the popular idea of Burchfield as a painter with an almost spiritual connection to the natural world, “Blistering Vision” argues that his paintings and sketches of industrial sites form an important link between the work of Naturalist writers like Emerson and Thoreau and the birth of modern environmentalism.
To piece the show together, Johnson and fellow curator Scott Propeack dove into the center’s extensive archive of journal entries and biographical material about the artist. They emerged, Burchfield Penney Director Anthony Bannon said, with “a new way of constituting Burchfield’s contributions to the environmental aesthetic movement of the 20th century.”
Much of the work has been included to stress Burchfield’s contribution to the American “sublime” – that strange mix of beauty, fear, awe and despair that many great literary and visual artists have sought to capture in their work.
As a young artist living in Salem, Ohio in the 1910s and ’20s, Burchfield took many excursions to nearby towns and villages in search of the right combination of man-made industry and awe-inspiring landscape.
He found it in paintings like “Abandoned Coke Ovens” from 1918, which shows a great rip in the earth surrounded by barren countryside, with a row of houses looming in the distance.
He found it in the 1918 painting “Deserted Miner’s Home,” which shows an empty shack against an empty landscape, accented by hollow tree stumps that form the eerie outlines of human faces.
And he found it in “Storm over Irondale,” a potent fever dream of a painting that Burchfield sketched after taking a 30-mile bike ride to the small factory town spewing smoke into a strip-mined valley.
“They were strip-mining the hills for clay, and the process they used for the ceramics released a chlorine gas that was killing all the trees,” Johnson said, adding that Burchfield’s sketch of the valley was the inspiration for the show. “In it, he writes, ‘Life at Irondale is hideously raw, crude and primitive. It is splendid in its very brutality.’ This whole notion of the sublime in Burchfield’s work really comes back to this piece.”
The exhibition also includes later Burchfield paintings of Western New York, including industrial bridges across the Buffalo River, Grain Elevators, downtown buildings and springtime scenes of Zoar Valley, which at one point was slated to be turned into a hydroelectric power facility. And it features a reading room with books by Walt Whitman, John Burroughs, Stewart Udall and others, complete with bookmarks in pages that were of relevance to Burchfield.
In the view of Johnson and the Burchfield Penney staff, “Blistering Vision” shows that the painter was attuned as much to the rhythms and sounds of nature as to the human need to protect it.
“In my mind, Tullis has just remade the notion of the sublime, nominating Burchfield as an important contributor to our sense of environmental practice if not aesthetic,” Bannon said. “I think it’s a big deal. It’s not just another show of Burchfield.”
What: “Blistering Vision”
When: July 8 through Oct. 23
Where: Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.
Admission: $5 to $10
Info: 878-6011 or burchfieldpenney.org