The Power of Place
It’s curious how often artwork depicting specific places trigger feelings of nostalgia and expectation. Place is a powerful source of memory and projection. Whether it’s one’s childhood home, a city skyline from 1985, or a family pet on a couch, images of place ground us in both personal and shared histories.
Joel Sternfeld’s Oxbow Archive
Beneath a weighted blanket of looming winter clouds sleeps a vast, frozen plain near the Oxbow River in North Hampton, Massachusetts. Artist Joel Sternfeld has returned to this site on many occasions since 1978 when he first encountered it while traveling. The location is the field depicted in the 1836 painting by Thomas Cole entitled View from Mount Holyoke, North Hampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (Oxbow); an iconic masterpiece of American landscape painting juxtaposing the pastoral idyll of neatly farmed plots with the sublime power of the untamed, wooded wilderness. The painting is surprisingly political in that it makes a visual argument for Western expansion and Manifest Destiny. Sternfeld’s photograph of the East Meadows is part of the artist’s Oxbow Archive series, a meditation on Cole’s 19th-century representation of agriculture set alongside the primeval forest. The photo reminds us of the consequences of past ideologies and questions how we measure progress.
Joel Sternfeld (American, b. 1944) is an artist and photographer. His work challenges us to consider the mutability of memory and addresses the complexities of the American experience by exploring a wide range of issues including history, politics, environmentalism, and social justice. Often, his subjects are positioned somewhere between hope and despair; utopia and dystopia. Sternfeld received John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships in 1978 and 1982 and was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1990. Currently, he is the Noble Foundation Chair in Art and Cultural History at Sarah Lawrence College.
“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
― Susan Sontag, On Photography
By revisiting works of art and historical images, we reassess past beliefs, important events, and artistic styles. Artists have done this for centuries as they reinterpret works by great masters or reimagine time-honored genres and motifs. The before and after image has become a powerful messaging tool and remains a mainstay of American marketing. Advertisers use such images to support product claims and to sell countless weight loss miracles. Social media is filled with images of people recreating old family photos or restaging famous paintings. During the pandemic, the Getty Challenge became so popular that the images are now collected in a museum publication. Can you revisit an image from the past and produce a new image? What will your work say about the passage of time?
Reimagine a photograph or work of art from the past. Using an image that captures a unique moment in time, create an updated image. The image can be personal or widely known.
- Find a historic photo or painting of a place and recreate an image of the site. How do the two images create a dialogue about the site?
- Choose a famous work of art and restage it with family and friends.
- Reenact a family photo. Does the new image hold the same importance?
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
- What does it mean when we think of an image as timeless?
- Why do some images become part of our collective memory and others fade?
- Can a photograph become a memory?
About the exhibition:
The Art of Trees reveals the many resonances, forms, and relationships of trees. Exploring themes of restoration and destruction, community and isolation, location and identity, and fragile temporalities, the artists featured in the exhibition experiment with a range of mediums, and even use trees as creative collaborators to express our essential and inseparable bond with these guardians of the earth.
About Near & Far:
Contemporary art often pushes physical, intellectual, and societal boundaries. It has the power to affect change and expand understanding. In that spirit, we have been working to make remote experiences with our exhibitions ever more accessible. Near & Far offers you a new way of engaging with the Gund Gallery through a series of virtual experiences, programs, exhibition activations, and online artist-in-residence interactions.
The Gund Gallery exhibitions and programs are made possible, in part, by the Gund Gallery Board of Directors and the Ohio Arts Council.
Images, top to bottom:
Joel Sternfeld, March 4, 2007 The East Meadows, North Hampton, Massachusetts, 2008. Digital-color print. 72 x 88 1/2 inches. Gund Gallery Collection; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Graham Gund ’63.
Thomas Cole (American, 1801-1848) View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836. Oil on canvas. 51 ½ x 76 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 08.228.