The character and history of a region are often misunderstood by those who do not have their own history with the place. The peculiarities of a region still point to something universal and shared when handled with sensitivity, and Cris Bruch‘s solo show Others Who Were Here at The Frye Museum does just that.
This is no mean feat, especially in this place and time. Regions have been politicized in national discussions, and the American heartland is variously revered and reviled. For some, it is “The Real America”; for others, “the fly-over states.” The whole developed world has begun to dismiss any attachment to the past as senile credulity, and this is especially true at the edge of empire, in a technocratic outpost such as Seattle. In spite of all of this, Cris Bruch gives viewers a sensitive aperçu into the ethos behind the mythos of the midwest.
Despite all the invocations of that mythos in political rhetoric, we often miss how central it was in pre-industrial America, how it shaped policies that in turn shaped the landscape. In the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy at the birth of the republic, a mythic virtue was ascribed to the image of the yeoman farmer—that salt-of-the-earth man who transformed wilderness into agrarian abundance by the sweat of his brow. He symbolized a pious work ethic and a rugged individualism, dedicated to creating a lasting settlement that expanded the empire, acre by acre, unlike trappers and scouts who meandered the lawless fringe and landed aristocracy who relied on the labor of others.
Others Who Were Here admits that this way of life has all but disappeared, but is not strictly an elegy. Its subdued atmosphere is more monastic than funerary, and though it is firmly rooted in terrestrial experience (a world of discard, of loss and rusty, dusty decay), the mundane becomes numinous and burdens are lightened. Though “the dancers are all gone under the hill,” and what is lost cannot be reclaimed, hope remains in the wisdom of humility: “Humility is endless.”
Alas, the ideological force of the homestead movement that established the heartland was precisely a lack of wisdom and humility. Jefferson’s yeoman farmer was invoked as a manly paragon of New World orderly strength when northern U.S. legislators pushed for homestead acts in the second half of the 18th century, which granted public land to adult heads of households. Southern legislators fought to grant the land to wealthy planters (in direct opposition to the Jeffersonian ideal). Southern secession ended the political gridlock, and after the war, anyone who had fought against the U.S. government was excluded from the homestead act, which effectively gave priority to northern farmers and European immigrants. Adult heads of households also included single women and freed slaves, but all who were eligible were essentially being told: There is no room for you here; go west. It was an expedient way of pushing the poor and unlanded into new, potentially dangerous territories.
Those accustomed to the temperate, loamy coastal environment did not know how difficult dryland farming would be on the prairie. The thousands and thousands of homesteaders knew there were millions of acres up for grabs, but little of it was actually arable. The Plains Indians had familiarity with the land and knew how to farm and, for tribes who had adopted horseback hunting, rely on bison meat. However, homesteaders and the U.S. military systematically starved the Plains tribes through bison culls, forcing them onto reservations as they advanced.
In the first wave, following the Homestead Act of 1862, households could claim a 160-acre plot, and were on the hook to make improvements to the land in the first five years. Fewer than half were able to maintain their claim. Some lots simply could not produce sufficient crops, especially if located far from rivers and alluvial soil. In 1909, the Enlarged Homestead Act enticed a new wave of hopeful farmers by doubling the size of plots to 320 acres. The choice land with access to easier irrigation was already taken, so new arrivals had more land that was less arable and required greater maintenance. In their desperation to coax every bit of productivity from the soil, they degraded it and, following severe droughts, there came the The Grapes of Wrath. The yeoman farmer, erstwhile the symbol of a generative piety, had begotten not a cornucopia, but a handful of dust.
Those who weathered the Dust Bowl and the depression in the prairie lands faced a hard-scrabble life, and the image of the yeoman farmer became romanticized anew in a tragic way. Those who now speak of the heartland as “the Real America” are gnawing the last shreds of flesh off this withered Jeffersonian icon—an icon of a past promise of glory, hewn from the elements, but now allegedly martyred by decadent urbanity. Both this cynical populism and the cynical elitism that often rebuts it ignore the universal experiences—folly and redemption, isolation and the communion—that acquired a peculiar sensibility on the prairie.
Others Who Were Here is as timely as it is subtle as it coaxes this sensibility from a scrappy panoply of objects. All the while, Bruch plays with inaccurate representations of these places (the romantic myths, the vague assumptions). For instance, a room full of ghostly structures seems to suggest actual farmhouses and silos. One sees only the contours of the models beneath shrouds of white flannel. They are, in fact, not representations of actual agricultural structures, but are so evocative of them that one might assume so before taking a closer look and asking just what purpose the structures would have served before being relegated to the dust bin of the land itself.
The same evocative power is observed in beautifully crafted wooden “tools” hanging on the gallery walls. The slender, wooden forms evoke yokes and harvesting tools, and again at first glance we might assume that they are replicas of some actual farming implement, but they are merely aesthetic objects. To Bruch, growing up suburban and fascinated by the “adult” world of farming that his relatives and grandparents knew, farm tools had a mystique. They were part of an unrevealed world of men, and to learn their use was a rite of passage. He manages to inspire that sort of fascination in the curious observer without referencing anything literally mystic or occult. Bruch’s tools are beautifully crafted, but not too precious.
In fact, nothing in the show feels too precious as an object, and yet Bruch reminds viewers of the preciousness of the little luxuries and experiences one might have in poverty on the plains. On his travels in the heartland, Bruch found small, antique beauty cream jars in a midden and created enlarged replicas of them in cast glass. In the harsh climate and on the strict budget typical of the homesteaders’ lives, cold creams would have been an extravagance. Again, Bruch doesn’t make his reference too literally extravagant, but increases its scale and makes it as exquisite an object a possible using the most basic materials.
The light sculpture titled “Eidolon” is another example of this. At the far end of the gallery, it resembles a UFO, a lenticular cloud or some other meteorological phenomenon: A bilaterally symmetrical saucer shape, dark on the bottom and glowing a soft orange on top. It is created by the precise lighting of a curved board (several layers of thin board pressed together) with a coating of matte orange paint on top. Positioned on the wall above eye level (for most visitors), the source of the orange glow is invisible and mysterious. At a glance, “Eidolon” is so ethereal that it feels thematically disconnected, but it is yet another observation of sublime and tender beauty produced from the homeliest things.
For those living on the plains, a sense of the sublime amid deprivation and toil was commonly sought through the church, whose structure also served as a social and metaphysical center. In some cases, homesteads were established collectively by a sect that migrated together from the east, or even from Europe. Bruch references the centrality of religion to these communities in an installation that breaks a small green house into four sections that are placed to form the cross-shaped layout of a cathedral. (The windows are true antiques that came from a house that Bruch and his wife bought years ago.) The piety of the mythic farmer is restored, as the place of worship and the place of growth are formally united in a crystalline, porous enclosure.
This is the most direct nod to an interior/exterior dichotomy in the show, which is not essential to the thematic arc but is naturally felt when one encounters objects that feel like they ought to be back out on the prairie. A whirling form of corrugated sheet metal in one of the front galleries dominates its small space, leaving one feeling claustrophobic. (That is only an observation, not a critique; as we are meditating on the open skies of the Great Plains, perhaps we should be made to feel confined within the linear. Meanwhile, as with readymades, a ramshackle arrangement of paddock walls standing across from “Eidolon” draws its effect from being displaced from the wide open plains, where it might disappear against the backdrop. Here, it explicitly directs one’s path, however aimlessly.
Others Who Were Here is anything but aimless, but it eloquently expresses loss and being lost. It captures a glimmer of what it must be like to be tied to the land, and yet unmoored as the earth itself and global powers prove fickle. Subsistence farming may be a thing of the past for the majority of Americans, and younger generations are quite at ease with being nomadic. And yet it is clear that insecurity (a sense of loss and being lost) abounds to this day. Others Who Were Here references a specific place, but it is without a time. For eventually:
…what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
Cris Bruch’s Others Who Were Here is on display through March 27.