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Now to something very near and dear to my heart: I have recently been made aware of a genre of painting called California Impressionism. Ever since I moved away from California, I’ve realized that the California coastline is one of the most beautiful places on earth– certainly nothing in the contemporary United States can compare.

The Portland Art Museum is having a show on California Impressionism for the rest of the summer, a 65-painting exhibition.

Selection from the Portland Art Museum–John Hubbard Rich, The Idle Hour

Granville Redmond, Flowers under the Oaks

The artists are incredible at portraying that sense of arresting calm present in the California country that I remember well from the thousands of road trips I took when I was young, driving between Salinas, Vacaville, and Rocklin.

William Ritschel, Centurions of the Sea

William Ritschel, Boats Returning Home

Each one of them is iridescent and warm, just like I remember.

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This photorealistic painting by John Baeder is typical of the diner facades that he painted throughout his career.

As I have mentioned, I’m curating an exhibition on John Baeder this summer at the Masur Museum of Art (although at this point it’s a total toss up as to which paintings are going to end up in the gallery from our permanent collection). From my work so far, I have been able to gather a partially-formed picture of Baeder’s life’s work. Questions hang in the air when his work is first seen: why did Baeder paint diners, and why so many? What do they mean, for him and for us?

Baeder did not grow up in Georgia so much as he grew up in diners; in his written work, Diners, he viscerally described the diners of his childhood as places of wonder, filled with vibrant flavors and even stronger personalities.

Few things can be hailed as more truly ‘American’ than the diner. Over the years, many ideas and items have been reinterpreted and converted within the United States, creating bastardized concepts that hail as much to the Old Country as they do to the U.S. (think hamburgers, democracy). The diner, however, grew from the American working class culture in the late 19th century, fueled in later years by the invention and proliferation of the automobile.

For Baeder, diners were a home away from home: the rattle of the kitchen, the smell of meat on the grill, the flourished, hand-painted script that decorated the menu were all indications that he was at once where he came from and where he was going. His words become weighted with sadness throughout his lifelong journey: he recognizes that the death of an American art form, the diner, is upon us, as much as he stubbornly proves its worth.

This is a later photo of the Empire Diner, which Baeder deplored; he felt as if it had lost its soul as a diner, replacing the ‘diner’ atmosphere with a sleek restaurant copy that capitalized on the past popularity of true diners.

The Empire was a particularly strange case for Baeder–he painted this diner, but grudgingly. It had candles burning visibly in its windows, all steel and lights and kitsch, playing on the popularity of the art of the diner without embracing its imperfect and true qualities.

For Baeder, diners are lucid dreams. They are real yet fragile, subject to the whims of the changing cultural landscape, and Baeder struggles to salvage and deify them, the knowledge that a simple commemoration is not enough to reverse the damage that time has done.

Diners are an anthropological gem of modern-day America. They are the unsung key to understanding the roots of American society, even as their structures rot and give way to high-rise buildings.

I went to go see the exhibition La Patagonie at the Musee du Quai Branly yesterday (finally) and it was pretty impressive… the indigenous Selk’nam tribe of Tierra del Fuego was given a significant portion of the exhibit, and although I have seen drawn pictures of them, it was my first time being able to see what their ritual costumes looked like when worn.

There was a video that went around through chain emails in the 90s that started out with a little car driving peacefully on a tree-lined highway. In the first minute it warned you to look closely and turn your speakers all the way up, so that you “could look closely.” After about a minute, a ghostly black object took over the screen, screaming, and without fail most people would literally fall over out of fright. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I got that same feeling when looking at the Selk’nam costumes. They hit you with that same hard impact, haunting and cold.

The rituals that the particular costumes I’m talking about were used for a type of male initiation ritual–they were the literal embodiment of spirits, walking around terrifying the members of the tribe.
Selk'nam ritual wearSelk'namSelk'nam

In any case, this exhibition was incredible, right up my alley in terms of academics. I’m thinking about going back to the museum to pay the 35 euro price for the exhibition catalog which I can barely read, since it only exists in French.

In terms of the ‘remnants of past brutality,’ it’s hard for someone who has any background in indigenous arts whatsoever to ignore the history of how objects got to a museum like that one. The objects are almost completely religious or used in religious ceremony, and objects like the boli of the Bamana culture were never meant to be understood or really even seen by members of the populace other than the village’s priest, so infused were they with sacred meaning and materials. It makes me cringe a bit walking through that museum and understanding how much blood was spilt transporting them to this location so Westerners could gawk at them.

Another interesting choice made by this museum was to exhibit recent (circa 2008) Bolivian parade costumes–in the midst of ancient art from indigenous cultures the curators chose to exhibit mainstream festival wear… to me, this just reinforces the mental subjugation of cultures that express their art in different forms than realism: these forms of art are not created out of the inability to create a perfect, ‘photographic’ image, but because of the difference in the purpose that the art will serve. Showing contemporary art next to ancient, religious art seems to be in poor taste–it leaves too much unsaid to the viewer, even though the curator could have a great reason for displaying it in that way.

Despite my oversensitivity to issues like these, the museum made up for these inherent moral qualms through an obvious love and respect for the items it holds.The Patagonia exhibit was also breathtaking–they captured the sense of that land as “magical” through historical notions of its other-worldliness and through modern/semi-modern landscapes.