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by William Fox
The Megan Fox Gallery in Santa Fe has earned a reputation for showing serious contemporary photography, particularly work where reality and/or its images have been radically manipulated. The disconcerting miniature tableaux by David Levinthal and the profound grotesqueries of Joel-Peter Witkin exemplify the work there, as do the overpainted tour brochure and high-end real estate ads by German artist Gert Rappenecker exhibited this last summer--both, poignant subjects for a gallery located at an international nexus of art tourism.
Germans have been transfixed by the American West ever since their first visits in the 19th century. It's not surprising that it was a Dusseldorf-born artist, Albert Bierstadt, who shifted his attention from painting the Bernese Alps to the romantic horizon of the Rocky Mountains during his first trip West in 1859, and thereafter devoted his life to laying down the visual myths of the region. The pioneers who flooded the West later that century came equipped not only with the necessary homemaking equipment, but also with scenic expectations provided by Bierstadt in exhibitions and lithographs printed in popular magazines--a romanticism seldom fulfilled, but one to which we nonetheless still cling.
The fascination of Bierstadt's countrymen with the region continues today as German tourists fill buses to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and book dude ranches years in advance so they can dress in full cowboy attire and participate in mock cattle drives. Rappenecker, born in 1955 in Freiburg/Breisgau, grew up watching the American television series Bonanza, has a penchant for cowboy hats, and relishes the scenic climaxes of the West such as Monument Valley and Yellowstone National Park. As a German artist he also retains deep attachments to that 19th century romanticism, his art veering from abstract color fields in the "Sublime Painting" series to the brooding monochromatic vistas of the "Landscapes," begun in 1993. Rappenecker is, inevitably, a contemporary citizen of world media as well, which means he's aware of and able to conflate his romance with the sublime and the corollary stereotypes of commercial tourism.
The images of the "Landscapes" are based--literally--on travel brochures, the familiar pictures from which are photocopied and enlarged, mounted on the white ground of stretched canvas, then painted over with a single oil color out of a tube. The same landscapes are recreated many times, accumulating in "one-of-a-kind multiples," often with two or more paintings of the same image hung next to each other. Rappenecker is admiring the scenery, yet subverting its commercial representation to undermine our assumptions about it: the pictures in the throw-away brochures, run off by the hundreds of thousands, are transformed into valuable oil paintings, even though they are still produced in series. The layered irony prompts us to realize that our individual experience of the sublime at the edge of the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley is unique, but also, just one among millions of such moments experienced each year by the parks's visitors, most lured by the scenic promise of a slick tourist promotion. Bierstadt, who during the latter half of the 19th century helped transform the West from the mythical unknown to the tourist destinations of the transcontinental railroads, would have understood perfectly.
In a newer series, "Homes and Lands"--based this time on images from brochures for exclusive real estates--Rappenecker deconstructs our expectations even further. Real estate is defined as property in buildings and land, a class of assets understood worldwide. The properties we assemble express not only our socioeconomic status, but also our aspirations, an addiction to self-expression most obvious at the upper reaches of the wealthy. The "distinctive properties" overpainted by Rappenecker represent enormous amounts of capital brought to bear in service of our egos. Now, we've moved beyond the realm of the tourist and into the piecemeal purchase of the American Dream in 2.87-acre ranchettes. While it may be impossible to own part of a myth, or even just appreciate its image while surrounded by other "Pueblo style" houses "only five minutes from town," this is yet one more prevailing current in the marketing of the romantic, and Rappenecker is ideally poised as a cultural tourist to examine it.
It's difficult for us to not covet, even if only momentarily, the properties listed in "Homes and Land," whether its an adobe outside of Santa Fe, or a modest oceanfront "cottage" selling for a mere $3.8 million. But, Rappenecker's work reminds us that here, too, we're just a kind of tourist pausing at a scenic overlook in admiration of a territory most of us will never inhabit. Once again he contrasts our desire for the perfectly unique and sublime with the mass marketing used to sell it, leaving behind his paintings as souvenir-mementos from this detour into our romantic expectations.
Sante Fe, New Mexico
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