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From the Archives

The Archives of my Archives

Sarah Rovang

So I have a confession to make... This isn't the first blog I've started. Over the past few years I have had a number of blogs to commemorate trips or muse about research projects. Most often my past blogging practice has been characterized by frantic and frequent writing punctuated long, inexplicable silences. All of this blogs are still floating around ether of the internet, snapshots of short periods in my research and writing life. I'm resurrecting a few of my favorite entries here. 

This first one is from a blog I kept while on a road trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Cleveland, Ohio during the summer of 2012. On the road with my very old and dear friend Jess, it was traumatic but also kind of wonderful; one of those epoch-making, welcome-to-adulthood kind of trips. 

From Inn to Inn, with some George Inness In Between

Excerpted from The Dark and Roving Eye Sees America, June 11, 2012

A lot has happened in the past few days and so there's a lot of blogging to do tonight, but fortunately I'm luxuriating in a well-cushioned rocking chair on the porch of the "Stay Inn Style" bed & breakfast in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

What happened yesterday: 

After a night of inexplicable and persistent industrial noise that commenced a little after midnight, Jess and I folded up the tent and rolled out of Abilene State Park bright and early, just was the sun was starting to rise between the dense trees. North central Texas unfolded rosy and bucolic in the dawn as we sped through Buffalo Gap on our way back to I-20. Hill country gave way to flat lands, and we cut up through Denton to avoid the tangle of highways slicing up Dallas and Fort Worth. Though all of Texas seemed to be in church, the kind folks at I Love Sushi let us into their establishment and fed us before their noontime opening. Sated on seaweed and miso, we braved the crossing from Texas into Arkansas. Immediately, the scrubby trees of Texas were replaced with majestic pines lining the roadsides, and scenic byways supplanted the ubiquitous ribbon of east-west interstate. Hot Springs, which sprawls and meanders from contemporary resort lake town into 1920s bathing/gambling town is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive places I have ever experienced in America. Our Scottish host Eric at the Alpine Inn (home of some sinful pillowtop beds and unparalleled air conditioning for a steal of a deal) reported that he and his wife moved to Hot Springs because it reminded him of Europe, and indeed I even found myself recalling streetscapes from Geneva.

After settling into the "Golf Room" at the Inn, Jess and I drove through town, bewildered and besotted tourists on the quest for food. Passing by the Ohio Club (historic hangout of Al Capone & co.), we landed at the Arlington Hotel, a faded beauty of a Victorian Hotel where we could dine looking out on Hot Springs National Park. I suppose here is a logical point to address the strange phenomenon known as "Hot Springs National Park," which is unlike any national park I've ever experienced. Apparently the park owns all of the water rights and actually sells the water, by the gallon, to the two remaining bath houses that still function as bath houses. It also seems to own some of the buildings (there are about 8 bath houses on bath house row), or at least has the rights to put up its own interpretive plaques. The "park" itself is a heavily manicured area surrounding the spring that was landscaped in the early twentieth century to provide a place to walk and exercise between bath treatments.  The spring water comes out too hot to experience immediately, but you can feel the heat radiating off the rocks where it falls under bridges upon the tufa cliffs that comprise the park. Jess and I strolled up into the park, along the "Grand Promenade" before making our way back to bathhouse row, now shrouded in twilight, to take pictures and dream of gangsters and consumptives and movie stars crowding into these luminous white palaces of health and hygiene.

Hot Springs, Arkansas 

Hot Springs, Arkansas 

What Happened Today:

Bidding an early au revoir to Hot Springs, we embarked on Route 7, which led us through the hairpin turns of the deep and mystical Ouachita National Forest. Arriving in Fayetteville a little afternoon, we fortified ourselves with hummus and falafel at the local Greek place before setting out in search of AMERICA. And by America, of course, I mean Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, brought to you by Wal-Mart.  What followed was perhaps the most surreal, startling, wonderful, terrible art museum experienced of my life.

First off, thank you Wal-Mart, for the free admission to your permanent collection, though I did pay the $5 to see the Hudson River School traveling exhibit (and thanks also to GE and Coca-Cola for that).  Tucked away in a valley, Crystal Bridges is the work of architect Moshe Safdie and regardless of how the interior is actually used, is a fantastic and compelling architectural space. The collection, which is probably still in its infancy, as far as major permanent collections go, is a somewhat scattered tour of American art from colonial times to present. The conditions of viewership and the intended audience of this museum are really in some ways the distinguishing factors - there is very little discussion of style or influence or schools in the wall texts - content, formal composition, and historical relevance instead occupied the curatorial interest here. It was also fascinating to note how the viewing audience seemed to dwindle and disappear between the "Colonial and Revolutionary" exhibit hall (Oil paintings of George Washington! Horses! Landscapes!) to the "Late Twentieth Century" hall - apparently abstract expressionism does have quite the same allure as paintings of snow-covered New England towns.

The question of how to represent American art as a kind of cohesive entity in one mid-sized museum recurred throughout, and seemed to be answered by an often dissonant choir of curatorial voices who intermittently addressed the influence of Europe, the impact of the Civil War, and the need to distinguish between different modes of representation. Two of the more interesting sub-exhibits were a collections of Thomas Cole's paintings on loan from other institutes, and a room on the figure of the "Arkansas Traveler" in the election lore of the Harrison/van Buren era. I also got the sense that the curators are perhaps still learning how to use this space, which presents a lot of uninterrupted and spacious galleries with sloping walls and magnificent windows - hard to prepare into any kind of conventional "white cube" setting. Currently, the early twentieth-century art is actually boxed off into enclosures within an entirely glazed exhibition space, which on its own would be the ideal setting for non-light-sensitive sculpture. In this instance, and in many others, there seem to be some pretty fundamental disconnects between the architecture and the kind of art it houses. Most effective were the late twentieth-century galleries, which were suited in scale and theme to the monumental pop art and formalist art they displayed.

But, to address the actual art (and not just the conditions of display), it was brilliant to finally see Thomas Cole's Course of Empire Series AND the diagram of how they were originally meant to be displayed. And for its piecemeal nature, the collection certainly possessed a number of stand-out pieces, including some odd and wonderful things that wouldn't make it into any American art survey course (pictures to come). And should one suffer from what Henry James termed an "aesthetic headache," there are plenty of trails around the grounds (look, over yonder boulder! a rare exotic Calder!) where one can meditate on the intersection of nature and culture, until one becomes tired and retreats wearily to the gift shop.

Having purchased ALL POSTCARDS, Jess and I returned to Fayetteville for Thai food with some natives of the region (Jess' friend from poetry camp and his girlfriend), who told us of the dangers of wild hogs and the prevalence of hog-related art at the University of Arkansas. Acclimating to our (hog-bedecked) haunt at the Stay Inn Style b&b, it looks to be another quiet night before another long day. We're headed up to parts unknown of northern Missouri for a night of camping - what will NoMO have in stow? Who knows?

At Crystal Bridges, contemplating populism and art

At Crystal Bridges, contemplating populism and art