The No Place Like Home exhibit at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art (SLUMA) brings together Thomas Hart Benton, Joe Jones and other painters of a slow-moving American Midwest that never really quite existed. The paintings, drawings and lithographs of the exhibit come from the private collection of Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield.
Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) is probably the best-known American Regionalist painter, alongside John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood – artists also represented in the SLUMA exhibit. The Regionalists responded to the abstracted imagery of modernism with stylized but naturalistic representations of an idealized American farmland tamed by strapping men and women.
Some artists in the collection will be new to many. John Rogers Cox (1915-1990) is considered a Regionalist, but his landscapes have more of a bewitching quality than nostalgic. The three paintings by Cox provide an incontrovertible argument for why one needs to see a painting in person, not as a flat image. These paintings are absolutely fascinating because of their textural complexity. No reproduction can come close to the experience of standing before them.
Cox applies paint like collage. Each raised line of gold grain making up his wheat fields is distinct. His ominous placement of rusty farm equipment and a lone Victorian house on a hill in Grain Farm provides chilling evidence of humans no longer present. The wispy clouds look like a whistling wind sounds. Cox creates a world that would make an excellent setting for a Tim Burton film. Fewer than 20 paintings by Cox exist. Most were painted throughout the 1940s and ‘50s.
The Jolly Flatboatmen by Moonlight by Carl Wimar (1828-1862) modeled after George Caleb Bingham’s painting of the same subject (on view at the St. Louis Art Museum along with other paintings and prints by Wimar) is an excellent example of the effort made by mid-19th century painters trained in the Romantic tradition at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, as both Wimar and Bingham were, to represent the sky in its various incarnations. Wimar’s dancing figures are barely visible within the darkly painted canvas field. Painting scenes at night was a coveted challenge, the object was to convey a mood and an atmosphere that only occurs at just such a time on just such a night.
Late Night by Goerge Schreiber (1904-1977), painted nearly a century after Wimar’s moonlit scene, shows both how pervasive the ambition to evoke a real sense of the elusive night experience has been and the continued desire to capture a timeless rural America.
Paintings by Joe Jones (1909-1963) will be familiar to those who had the pleasure of seeing them within the 2010-11 retrospective exhibit on the artist at the St. Louis Art Museum. Jones’ social realist view of the “American Scene” depicts thickly muscled steamboats and ever-present throughout the exhibition, farmers harvesting wheat. Jones’ painting of a woman evicted from condemned housing represents the hot criticism of racial and class inequity for which he was known.
The Sinquefield collection teems with sympathetic depictions of struggle. Most of the work on display at SLUMA were painted by artists who wore their leftist politics on their paint-soaked sleeves. While the Sinquefields are not known for left-leaning political perspectives, art collectors may be motivated by any number of impulses. Exhibits that bring forward private art collections for the public to view are always a must see, and this opportunity should not be missed.
Where: 3663 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108
When: through Feb. 2
Museum Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday
Also see: Musings: Museum does art – and us – a service in showcasing Joe Jones by Robert W. Duffy