What a Picture Says A Review of “On Place: Three Views of the Land”

By: Clara Derby, derbycl@mnstate.edu 

The afternoon of Nov. 7, just a few days after Fargo’s first real snow, proved a fitting day to see The Plains Art Museum’s exhibit, “On Place: Three Views of the Land” by photographers Wayne Gudmundson, Drake Hokanson and Stuart Klipper. These three Midwestern gentlemen portray the sights and lives of their rural Midwest homes with expansive landscapes, portraits of lone and sturdy buildings and relationships between man and nature.

With Fargo finally in its iconic snowy state, it seemed apt to reflect on the places few of us take the time to appreciate, but many of us call home.

Spanning the entire second-floor gallery, the exhibit’s 45 works are simply framed, similarly sized, softly lit and all hung at a comfortable eye level. The uniformity has a certain sense of prudence. Each artist’s works have their respective wall, while the center exhibits display three rivers as seen through the eyes of these three men.

As Jim Heynen says in his essay accompanying the exhibit, the pieces do not compete with one another. They simply converse on their subjects. Taken together, the exhibit presents the rural Midwest as a place of power, humility and balance.

In his photograph, “North of Tuttle, ND,” Gudmundson captures the seeming infinity of the prairie landscape: a black and white image of a single-track dirt road stretching up and over a rugged, snow-speckled hill, barren except for rock and the meanest of shrubs. Electric transmission poles follow the road, but even they are bent by the wind, reminding the viewer that in this land, nature rules and nothing escapes the elements. Placing myself inside the image, I felt very small and lonely. I can imagine turning in either direction and seeing nothing but the frigid prairie. Yet, in all its seeming emptiness, there is a deep and subtle beauty to the land. The soft curve of the hills, the patterns the snow makes in the wind, the knowledge of life teeming beneath the earth waiting for spring all create an almost audible hum of energy. There is a power to the land that is subtle to the ear and eye but tells the spirit that it is in the presence of the eternal.

Hokanson’s “Oma’s Front Door, Peterson, Iowa” is a portrait of a worn, white, wooden door perched atop a flight of crooked steps with a metal handrail for Oma (German for grandmother) to lean on. By no means grand, it is evident that the door has withstood decades of blizzards and held up against mountains of snow drifted up its side. Humble as it is, the door still upholds the pride of its owner—ruffled curtains and a lace heart hang in the window and a collage of rural landscapes are displayed in the lower frames (pictures assumedly taken by Oma’s grandson, Drake). The door is like its people: private, modest and steadfast with a quiet sense of pride in its work. Behind the door lies a simple life with simple pleasures assuredly well lived. Through his portraiture, Peterson exemplifies the country’s hardworking and humble spirit cherished by those who know and live through it.

Much as the nature of the Midwest is a balance of honor and humility, its people have struck a balance with their land. In “Mississippi mile 729, heading upstream toward Fountain City, Wisconsin,” Hokanson frames the viewer’s perspective as sitting squarely on top of a barge driving down the center of the tree-lined Mississippi. The barge is not one of the romantic steamboats from the world of Mark Twain, but it is a vehicle of pure industry. The production and transport of goods from one port to the next exemplifies the hearty work ethic characteristic to the Plains. Yet the natural world is rarely forgotten or exploited in this economy, it is recognized as an integral part of the system. Yes, there are combine harvesters, bush planes spraying pesticides, and oceans of Monsanto soybeans, but this is not the true character of the Midwest. The Midwest, with all its pragmatism, cherishes the land by recognizing its utility and finds ways to work together, and this is what Hokanson captures. Indeed, a barge is not a natural feature to a river; yet, it is an example of the human species harnessing its environment in order to provide for itself and its offspring. The Mississippi will continue to flow towards the Atlantic, and trees will line its shores regardless of whether the barge is along for the ride, as will a river continue to flow beneath a bridge. In a binary world, industry and nature are often pitted against one another, but as Hokanson illustrates, man and nature exist within the same sphere and continuously adapt together. Viewing his work reminds the visitor of this relationship. It also reminds us to appreciate the accomplishments of civilization and the beauty of nature, and to seek ways to join the two together. 

Overall, the exhibit captures the people and environment that make up a place. It portrays the power of the land, the grit of its men and the balance struck between the two. For those who live and work here, the exhibit strikes a deep sense of pride. For those who grew up here but have moved away—either in body or spirit—it evokes comfort and nostalgia that can only be matched by visiting Oma’s house. And for those who have never lived in the rural Midwest or have rarely seen it, it offers a glimpse into a different world. Even more rare, the exhibit’s portrayal of the beauty and value of the prairie is neither romanticized nor parodied, but a portrayal that can only be done by those who truly know the Midwest. I encourage all who have the opportunity to visit to do so. Bring your families and friends this holiday season to reflect and bond over this place we call home.

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