Derek Johnson Muses

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Kicking it at the Joslyn

Since today was the first Saturday without college football since August, I declared it to be Cultural Enrichment Saturday. And since it is Saturday, I decided to come to Omaha to enjoy a free admission before noon at the Joslyn Art Museum, a privilege the museum grants every week.

Although the Joslyn’s collection isn’t as large a a major city’s museum, it has a lot of great classical pieces and pieces from the American west. Impressionists, photographs, indian artifacts, and even some church art. Today, I came to see two particular shows: American Landscape: Contemporary Photographs of the West, and From Sea to Shining Sea. As a photographer of rural places, I was intrigued to see both shows and see what insights and reflections I could gain.

Rolling up to the Joslyn reminds of why I love coming to Omaha, and cities in general. The marble building, the courtyard full of those cool brass structures. I rolled in, paid a quarter for the peace of mind knowing that my laptop was in a locker (in San Francisco, I could check my bag for free), and hit the gallery. I was drawn in, by the first photo of a waterfall gorge in Colorado in black and white. It looked like two billion things at one place.

American Landscape was a photo shoot of the west, with a modern hashtags of power lines, thrown away plastic bags, and roads. The philosophy of the show was, man’s been in the American west for well over a hundred years. There is simply no way to hide it in photographs, so let’s just show the evidence of humans. So, the mostly black and white series had its share of open plains in the Badlands and Sandhills and remote rocks hills, but it also had abandon homes, farmhouses, railroad grades, and power dams. I went through the series, reading the captions, the sitting on the bench, and letting my eyes drift over the paintings. (Lesson I learned in San Francisco: enjoy the gallery, and let it come to you.)

So I went through that series, and moved on to From Sea to Shining Sea. Which, alas, was no more than proof that comic book were not just a mere late twenty-first century for men with low self-esteem. The paintings were by Currier and Ives, who immediately remembered as a a line from a popular Christmas song. They were colorful, and almost too idealized. These pictures were what must have enticed naïve, non-english speaking immigrants to come west. (Indeed, even one of the captions in the Joslyn’s other gallery admitted that the west was too idealized in paintings, tall tales, and the Wild West Show.) I let this colors pass through my mind and remembered fondly some of the places I’d been. That was all.

I wandered through the neighboring gallery of abstractions, and then back to the American Landscape. I drifted in between pictures, but there was one photograph that kept calling my name. It was a series by a man who took photographs from a plane. The first confounding one was of a mining hill, with a series of roads scattered all over it (at least I think those were roads). I kept looking at it, looking at other pictures, and looking at it again. Then I approached it from far away and walked toward it, and as I approached, the roads jumped of the photograph, showing the man-made portion of the terrain over the natural portion. I kept trying to look at the photograph as if I were looking out of the plane, which was probably my mistake.

Until I noticed the next to it, which was some old mining field of a substance I can’t remember. This photograph looked nothing like a photograph at all, just black white abstract figure and some white spots. Again, I approached a couple of different times, walking from different points of the gallery. I let my eyes linger on the next wall, photographs of old railroad grades I found more appealing. But whenever I went back to that photo of sheer black and white, even after I walked through the rest of the Joslyn and came back to it, I couldn’t see it as a photograph. That’s how I knew it was time to go.

The Joslyn’s collection of western art reminds me of why I love to take pictures, and why I love to write. The dramatic westerns, the painting from guys who had to drag their painting materials with them across mountains and rough terrains to find their ideal landscapes, then haul them back east. Those guys really inspire me, even if they did over-idealize the west. When I travel these parts, I see a different country. I see rottting barns, old fences, and empty building in the downtowns of small towns that housed restaurants, shops, and car dealerships. I see rural America, just rotting away, with stories to tell if they knew how to tell. Or we knew how to slow down and listen. That’s why I’m grateful for the Joslyn.

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