The exhibition’s title suggests an agon — Overlook: Teresita Fernández Confronts Frederic Church at Olana. Fernández admits that’s the intention in a promotional video where she addresses the viewer, relating that she “wanted to create a somewhat confrontational and immersive experience” that would reinsert the “cultural component that’s always erased.” Hearing this, I imagine Fernández, a contemporary artist who has long been concerned with American landscape, with the visual perception and conceptual concoction of the putatively natural world, grappling like Jacob grappled with the angel all night and through to dawn. But she is wrestling not so much with the long dead 19th-century painter Frederic Edwin Church, who did a great deal to shape a certain vaunted tradition of American landscape painting, as with the ideologies that Church championed.
Church was a key member and proponent of the Hudson River School, beginning his training under Thomas Cole, one of the movement’s founders. Their school produced highly romanticized views of what they termed “nature,”— actually idealized notions of the pastoral. Church, like his cohorts, produced depictions that tended to feature compelling detail, emphasize natural light, and highlight the grand scale of the view. Devout Protestants, both Cole and Church made paintings that sought to convey a sense of awe, to provide a view of the divine. This is the angel always hovering just above Church’s paintings: the idea that the landscape, cheerfully denuded of people (indigenous and otherwise), is the creative act of a very particular god. The viewer of these scenes becomes the armchair traveler, the inheritor of heavenly beneficence, the worshipful disciple rewarded. Jacob wrestled with a celestial incarnation to receive a blessing for himself, but Fernández wants to bring this angel to the ground to provide the visiting audience with another vision. “My notion of landscape,” she says in the video, “has much more to do with the history of people in places.”
In this context, this is a big task. Fernández has entered the house of an artist who at one point was the most famous painter in the United States. What’s more, as Mark Prezorski, the creative director of the Olana Partnership, explains to me, the grounds itself of the 250-acre New York State historic site are essentially the result of Church extending his painting practice into a three-dimensional space. The painter initially had a studio at Olana and then acquired the entire site, which was a working farm. Church then carefully and comprehensively crafted the visual experience of the main house and its surroundings: he designed the 10-acre lake sitting at the bottom of the hill, the winding road that leads to its top, the central residence and all its furnishings, even planting trees to create a particular aestheticized view from the house.
The project comes out of conversations that the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) had with the Olana Partnership about creating a show with a contemporary artist able and willing to take on this prodigious context and insert her work in argumentative dialogue with Frederic Church and his contemporaries. Fernández worked with Sara Meadows, the guest curator from the CPPC, to pull works from both the CPPC’s Traveler Art portion of their collection and Olana’s own collection, creating a show of paintings hung salon style, with work by Fernández interspersed throughout. It is the first site-specific exhibition mounted at Olana and the first time Fernandez has executed portraits for display.
Fernández’s interventions are both earthy and human. On a wall with other landscapes typical of the Hudson School, she has inserted remarkably modernist paintings that look like cold, gray friezes made of melted graphite, in which the landscape is reduced to three basic elements: air, land, and water. The horizon line shifts, but the three elements remains the dominant motifs. She insists, “graphite is a piece of somewhere,” so she is resolutely un-idealizing the views, making them out of the very materials of their basic, coarse existence. Graphite to image, angel to earth, dust to dust.
There are two other main walls, one that consists of portraiture and another of flora depictions, both done in chalk. On these walls Fernández’s treatment concerns the people who have been omitted from Church’s views. She was especially taken with the diary of the French artist Auguste Morisot, who tagged along on the 1886 expedition of the anthropologist and explorer Jean Chaffanjon as he traveled along the Orinoco River in the Guayana and Amazonas regions. Fernández was especially interested in a native person identified as Popurito in Morisot’s diaries. She presents a portrait of him across from the wall of flowers as well as more depictions on a portraiture wall. Also on the wall of portraits are contemporary insertions: Nari Ward, Ana Mendieta, Jesús Soto, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and others. They are drawn sparingly, as if only visitors to the place. And then the flora appear, and again give us a view of the details that the sweeping landscapes displayed in Church’s house tend to overlook.
Yes, the title is apt. It’s about an overlook, a vantage point that is remarkably privileged and also remarkably astute. It is also about disregarding what has always been in the landscape where there is an observer: the people that likely already inhabit the space. To assume the space is empty, subject to one’s intrepid will or expunged by divine intervention is to make the mistake at the root of colonialism: that the world isn’t composed of other human beings who only want to live.
This is an exhibition against erasure, against idealization; it is for the people who have been disappeared and against the angel that heralds their vanishing. It succeeds because it is resolute in its purpose — one can see the necessary people once again. And one can recognize in it the crucial elements of myth and legend: the lone woman confronting a force bigger than her, and yet finding the wherewithal to make it earthbound.
Overlook: Teresita Fernández Confronts Frederic Church at Olana, a collaboration between the Olana Partnership and the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) continues at the Olana historic site ( 5720 State Route 9G, Hudson, NY) until November 5.