Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Rural Avant-Garde

In Between; photograph by Amy Stein

I've recently had some email correspondence with Chris Sauter, an artist whose perspective on the necessary place of "the rural" in contemporary art will come as a confirmation to many of our readers. Later in the week we will highlight Mr. Sauter's own work, but I'd like to offer this first: Wandering The Back Forty: Some Ideas About A Rural Avant-Garde, his essay that introduces an entire issue of the Art Lies magazine devoted to rural modern art. 

Mr. Sauter argues with great eloquence for rural America's place within our current national dialogues, and he frames the issue of re-considering contemporary rural art within the larger historical context of the values and assumptions inherent in the last century's modern art. This is essential reading, and the artwork contained within this Art Lies feature will no doubt create some discussion. Regardless of our particular takes on the photography of Amy Stein (see above) or Sarah Higgins, what rings so clearly is Mr. Sauter's notion of the rural as a "contested space." Here's a short selection from his introduction:
Having grown up on my grandparents’ ranch, the rural, for me, is tied up with identity. Although most people now live in and around cities, many practicing artists are not native to urban areas. Embracing their roots is a way of acknowledging and clarifying identity—of mining their personal, formative experiences to produce work that is at once contemporary and local. I am again reminded of Grant Wood’s Revolt. His ideas seem particularly interesting now, as technology has performed a major role in creating global homogenization while at the same time making it possible to share remotely generated ideas on a global scale. Art that reflects non-urban sensibilities not only adds to the rich texture of contemporary art but points to possible connections between seemingly disparate cultures. 


The avant-garde is usually associated with Modernism and used to describe the art and artists at the very start of that period. I associate Modernism with urbanism. The stories surrounding the growth of Modernism tell of intellectuals sitting in caf├ęs and bars arguing the then-current state of affairs, formulating their reactions, writing manifestos and vowing to break with the past in favor of the new. In fact, Modernism did arise at the point when cities became dominant, shortly after the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. I certainly believe that it is responsible for some amazing art—I know that I would not be able to make the work that I do without its legacy.
But the mindset of mistrusting tradition is problematic at the very least. In its most extreme mode, totally discarding the past has led us to the predicament we are currently in, untethered from earlier foundations. We have arrived at a time when Modernist rejection of the past and its problematic relationship to nature should come to an end. Many artists, including those discussed and featured in the following pages, are looking back to traditions rooted in the rural. Some are adding their personal non-urban experience to a global dialogue, fighting the peripatetic homogenization that is the hallmark of contemporary life. These artists are seeking solutions to anxiety by interacting directly with the land and with their respective communities. This exploration seems to me to be a real paradigm shift. The avant-garde of today is not a break from the past—not a severing of roots. It is a true front line grounded by the past. After all, there are millennia’s worth of knowledge buried down there.
In addition to highlighting Mr. Sauter's work, we'll also be spending some time soon with other contemporary artists featured or alluded to in the Art Lies feature--those living in rural America or those, like Mr. Sauter, who number among the rural diaspora.